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Playing With Paper

Paper is a fantastic resource and has been appreciated the world over throughout history. Paper has evolved over 1,000’s of years and many different materials have been employed in creating a thin flat sheet that can be inscribed, folded, bent, rolled and cut. The very term paper derives from the name “papyrus” which is the name of a paper like material made from the pith of the cyperus papyrus plant innovated in Egypt at around the 3,000 BC.

Before what we currently understand as paper was innovated, parchment, the skin of animals (namely sheep, goats and cows), was used in the west to write upon. The name allegedly comes from the ancient Greek city of Pergamum (now modern Turkey) where it was believed to have been invented in the 2nd century BC. While Pergamum did certainly become famous for its production of parchment it does appear to have been used elsewhere. Parchment quickly gained favour over papyrus as it was more durable whereas papyrus was prone to splitting and deterioration.

The Chinese are credited with the invention of “proper” paper in the first century AD, though the exact date cannot be determined. The earliest recorded evidence was in AD 105 by Ts’ai Lun, an imperial official of Emperor Ho-di of the Han dynasty. Ts’ai Lun improved paper making by experimenting with different materials and his “recipe” included the use of the mulberry tree along with hemp cloth and fishing nets propelled production. These innovations quickly resulted in China surpassing the west in paper manufacture, with some libraries containing 3-4 times the amount of literature than their western counterparts.

Ts'ai Lun

The Chinese kept paper a closely guarded secret but eventually it spread to India, Korea and Japan. Arabs eventually learned how to make paper by allegedly capturing Chinese paper makers in the 8th century but it took hundreds of years more to reach the Christian west in the 12th century.

All of the improvements to paper manufacture over the years have helped to improve production costs and speed and this in turn has made paper gradually more accessible to more people. Originally something only the rich could afford, paper is now broadly considered a throw away commodity. These developments have in turn changed our perception, and use, of this treasured innovation.

Below are some of the most popular traditions throughout the world of how people play with paper:


We have to start with art! Rather than the simple recording of data, paper has been utilised to capture the vision of the eye and the mind for hundreds of years. From the humble mindless doodle as consciousness wanes to the purposeful drawings of scientists and inventors such as Leonardo Da Vinci trying to defy the limitations of his mortal shell. From the hobbyist water colour painter to Beatrix Potter's animal characters.

Jeremy Fisher from The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher

It must be said at this stage that all of the below entries are considered art forms and many are used not only for play but also as a livelihood.

The art of paper folding

Possibly the most famous method of playing with paper. Commonly these days many people refer blanketly to paper folding as origami, however strictly speaking Origami is the Japanese version of this art form. China has its own version “Zhezhi” and there is speculation as to whether China may have innovated paper folding as an art form first as China was producing paper for hundreds of years before Japan. The lines between paper folding traditions have now become very blurred but in broad principle Japanese origami mostly involves the making of living things and Chinese zhezhi the making of objects. Two of the most famous examples being the Japanese crane and the Chinese water bomb.

Origami Cranes

Of course all cultures exposed to paper have evolved their own traditions of paper folding and in the west we have grown up with folded paper hats at parties, fortune tellers in the playground and boats at bath time or in the park.

If while folding paper you are prepared to accept rolling then Quilling might also fall under this category. Tiny strips of different coloured paper are rolled, bent into shape and glued to a background creating beautiful patterns and pictures.

Paper Cutting

Some paper folding art forms permit cutting while others avoid it completely. Sometimes the cutting is the main art form in itself. Anyone growing up in the west will undoubtedly have made snowflakes for Christmas decorations. Not exclusive to December many will have also made people chains (paper dollies) and lanterns not only for decoration but also to play with, though much of the fun is in the making.

Model Making

While model making is definitely a profession employed in many business sectors, such as with architects to give a tangible 3-dimensional representation to their clients, it is also as a form of experimentation by inventors as well as a play thing. Leonardo Da Vinci and the Wright brothers both made models to test their theories on flight.

As a toy models can be something that you buy, assemble of make from scratch.

Toy theatres such as Pollocks could (and still can) be bought in books. Children can find pre-drawn and coloured scenes and characters for them to create their own productions and to let their creativity run wild.

A Pollock toy theatre

My mother in law remembers reading an article in a woman’s magazine in the 1950’s on how to create your own model village from paper, detailing how to cut and glue various different building types. She remembered fondly the enjoyment that she got from building and then playing with this village.

Something that I remember from my childhood was paper models of historic figures with different outfits with tabs. You folded the tabs to hook over your character to give them different outfits for different occasions depending on what you decided they should be doing in your game.


One of the most famous forms of making structures with paper is the French “Papier-mâché”, literally “chewed paper”. Originally paper would have been chewed and the mastication and salvia would have rendered it into a malleable material. Today we soak paper in water and glue to achieve the same effect. Papier-mâché has been used to make models, autometers, masks and more.

Across the ocean in Mexico people have their own version of papier-mâché called Cartonería, sometimes called Cartón Piedra “rock cardboard”. The most well-known cartonería is the piñata. A hollow structure of a star or animal filled with treats to which children apply a stick with gusto in an attempt to empty it of its contents.

Cartoneria sculptures

Mostly cartonería is made for specific annual celebrations such as the Burning of Judas in Holy Week and in the infamous Day of the Dead.

Originally cartonería was made from amata bark (a type of fig) or the fibres of the maguey plant but invaders banned the use of these materials after the conquest due to the strong spiritual and religious connections forcing locals to adapt and adopt european style paper with which the tradition now continues.

Paper aeroplanes

Paper aeroplanes (or darts) are probably a universal misspent youth in classrooms around the world! Most people know at least one style, or method, to making a paper aeroplane. But what are the origins of the humble paper plane?

Well it is possible to conceive that the Chinese may have innovated a PFO (paper flying object) though there is no evidence for this. As I said earlier both Leonardo Da Vinci and the Wright brothers (both hundreds of years apart) used paper to make prototype models for their flying machines. In the 18th century the Montgolfier brothers used a paper lined cloth to create hot air balloons and successfully flew their first one with crew in 1783.

Some of Da Vinci's sketches

In WWII rationing meant that a lot of privileges were simply unavailable. Plastic and metal weren’t available for toy makers however paper was unaffected by these rations. Wallis Rigby took advantage of this and published various aeroplane models in books and box sets. Although paper wasn’t rationed ink was and this affected how Wallis designed his aeroplanes.

Dressing up

Contemporary culture has seen a surge in creativity through mediums such as comic con’s and cosplay (costume play) and although parents have been dressing up their children in tinfoil coated cereal boxes and sending them off to fight dragons at the bottom of the garden for decades, Box Wars has taken this to whole new level and a whole new “adult” audience. In Box Wars participants make armour, weapons, vehicles, buildings, basically what ever you want, out of cardboard and fight/play until there is nothing left. There is something psychologically interesting that happens when you make something to be purposefully obsolescent. It frees you up to be more creative by removing the ties that we can attach to our creations when we hope that they will last forever.

Box Wars participants get ready to do battle!

There are many other ways that you can play with paper, I have just touched on the main categories. Experts said that computers would remove the need for paper and thank goodness they were wrong. Isn’t it wonderful how such an underappreciated material by todays standards can continue to provide joy to all ages all throughout the world!

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