Mystery Origami: What can the art of folding paper teach us about communication?

Mystery Origami: What can the art of folding paper teach us about communication?

This blog is the fourth in a 5-part series by Adam Elder, Westside's Director of Counseling and SEL. At Westside, we believe that all teaching and learning is both social and emotional. In this series, Adam will be showcasing how we teach students the five pillars of social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.) This blog focuses on relationship skills.

Building Relationship Skills

Building community and developing authentic relationships is at the heart of what we do every day at Westside School. One of our most beloved traditions, Wolfpacks, brings students and teachers from all grade levels together for that very reason. These gatherings allow students to practice a wide range of relationship skills such as:

  • Communicating effectively
  • Developing positive relationships
  • Demonstrating cultural competency
  • Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving
  • Showing leadership in groups

During a recent Wolfpack gathering, students practiced and reflected on their communication skills through an activity called “Mystery Origami.”

As you read on about this activity, I invite you to find a piece of paper of your own. There will be an opportunity for you to step into the shoes of our students and participate in this activity.

In my Wolfpack, we began by each finding a piece of paper and then reviewing the activity:

  • Step 1: A leader is chosen - (an opportunity to practice leadership)
  • Step 2: The leader creates their “Mystery Origami” while keeping it hidden from others
  • Step 3: Using only verbal directions, the leader must explain how to recreate their “Mystery Origami” - (practicing effective communication)

At this point in the activity, there is a catch, however. Those listening cannot ask any clarifying questions, and they cannot show their creation to the leader until the end.

Join Me!

For those of you who have found a paper of your own, this is your opportunity to participate. Follow the directions below to recreate my Mystery Origami creation. (Resist the urge to skip ahead.)

  1. Put the paper down in front of you
  2. Fold the top right corner down to the bottom of the paper
  3. Fold the top left corner down to the bottom of the paper
  4. Fold the left side in about 1/3 of the way
  5. Fold the right side in about 1/3 of the way
  6. Fold the bottom up about an inch
  7. Unfold the bottom edge so that it can stand up

Take a look at your creation. How does it compare to mine (below)?

(Did you participate in the Mystery Origami activity? Email me a photo of your creation, or post it in the comments on our Facebook page!)

Despite my creation having only five (relatively simple) folds, my guess is that very few people have a paper that looks exactly like mine:

Front and back of a white piece of paper folded

Like you, what students quickly realize is that even a simple series of paper folds is difficult to explain clearly. This often jumpstarts a conversation about their communication:

  • “How did you get that?”
  • “I heard you say…”
  • “Ohhhhh, what I tried to say was…”
  • “I messed up when you said ____. I think if you would have said ___, I would’ve gotten the same shape.”

As they talk, I interject with a few questions and observations of my own:

  • “Why do you think everyone got different shapes?”
  • “If you are the leader next time, what would you do differently? The same?”
  • “What did the leader do/say that was helpful?”
  • “I notice that people interpreted ‘fold the paper’ differently.”

Our conversation leads us to the importance of both speaking with precision and listening closely for understanding.

We then choose another leader to guide us through the activity again. Often, the next leader is very intentional about being more precise with their instructions, and will even take more time to state their directions multiple times, and in different ways, to try to be as clear as possible.

After a few rounds, part of the “catch” is removed, allowing group members to ask clarifying questions. This opens up further discussions on active listening, and how curiosity can lead to clearer understanding.

Connections to Westside’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism

Drawing the connection between this activity and effective communication occurred naturally as students engaged in this activity together. However, in conversations I have had with some students and teachers, we discussed how these key takeaways can be viewed through the lenses of diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. Below are just a few of the connections made between the Mystery Origami activity and what we can do at school to promote social justice.  

Clear Communication

In this activity, broad statements like “fold the paper” were not very helpful. In much the same way, when we make broad statements about people, it leads to misunderstandings. It can also lead to hurtful words, actions, and beliefs. Instead, when we use precise language to say what we are thinking and feeling, people can relate and connect.

Intent vs. Impact

Our activity leader intended to help us create the same paper folds. The listeners intended to follow closely to create the same shape. However, most people didn’t get the same result (an unintended impact). When this happens, we need to notice this and then take steps to change our approach next time.

At home or school, there may be times we do something that hurts someone else even though we intended to be helpful. In the same way, we must stop to recognize how the other person feels, and then take steps to change and do things differently next time.


The leader of this activity had to consider how others would interpret their directions. When imagining how others would hear their directions, they practiced empathy. Empathy allows us to consider how someone else is feeling or what they may be thinking. Understanding how to work against bias, stereotypes, and racism requires that we show empathy toward others.

As you can see, one simple activity requiring only a single piece of paper, can be the entry point to conversations about challenging topics, while simultaneously practicing a variety of social and emotional skills. At Westside School, many of our SEL activities offer multiple avenues for students to participate, all of which promote and contribute to a sense of community and positive connections with others.