We absolutely encourage you to try this activity with children of any age. It is very easy to prepare because you only need paper, and it is really fun. You can actually make your own rules, although it is basically about making paper columns that can hold on them as many books as possible. Working with paper is simply wonderful. The more we use it, the more we love this unique material. It is perfect for understanding basic structural concepts. It is a seemingly weak material, because you can tear it into pieces very easily with your hands, and yet you can work with it to build a fairly solid and stable shape.
The game we did this time with the children was simple: we handed them lots of paper sheets – reused ones of course – and they had to build paper columns; there were no rules, no limits in shape or size for the pillars. They began to make square, cylindrical and triangular columns, so again we had the opportunity to talk about the relationship between shape and strength. They already know that the circle and the triangle are usually the best shapes for structural strength, but this time, the circle was the winner because it was easier to build and would resist better. They also tested what size of circle works best, and how many columns you should have to make the entire structure more strong and stable. The next step was to strengthen the pillars, since with a certain amount of weight on top, they would crush and the entire structure would collapse. They reinforced the columns mainly by stuffing them with pieces of paper, until they had a robust vertical support system. Some groups ended up with at least three pillars, which it is actually a triangle (shape and structures once again), others tried with just two, and a few dared to use only one very thick and strongly reinforced column. Finally, when placing the books on the structure they experimented with balance, symmetry, load sharing, and general structural behavior. (⇓ Roll down to see all the pictures).
They had a lot of fun when they realized how strong the paper could be, and how many books you can place on top of a paper structure before it collapses, specially if shaped and worked in a particular way. It has been a very rewarding activity for the children and for us.
If you are interested in the world of paper and the potential of this material, do not miss the documentary “The Origami Revolution”, featuring engineers and scientists using origami to design drugs, micro-robots, and future space missions. Here you have a clip of the documentary:
You would also like to watch Robert Lang´s Ted Talk about origami, and how he is using math and engineering principles to fold the most amazing designs.