The Origami of Baton Rouge Schoolgirls: Games and Notes on Loose-leaf Paper

By Lisa Noland


Just as the Japanese have practiced the ancient art of origami for centuries, American schoolgirls have used ordinary loose-leaf school paper to make stylized shapes, games and stylized methods of communication. Herein is a study of such practices, utilizing observation of my daughter, eleven year old Mary Noland, and several of her friends. We will also examine the similar methods used by two seven year old girls and recollections of such by college-aged women and by a few women in their thirties in order to better understand, the use of these paper crafts (which have been noted by others such as Opie 1959).

The two seven year old girls in this study are Laura Sieberth and Amber Simonich. These subjects are both second-graders at Baton Rouge schools. They are both adept in making an intricately folded paper game which they call "Fortune Teller." in Iona & Peter Opie's study of British school, children this game is called "Film Star Oracle" and is described as,

a fortune-telling device ... A sheet of clean paper about seven inches square (usually torn from an exercise book), is folded diagonally both ways to mark the centre and flattened out again. Each corner is folded into the centre and the whole paper is then turned over and laid on its face, and the four new corners are folded into the centre to make a 3 l/2-inch square. The paper is next turned face uppermost again and the names of four or more film stars are inscribed across each of the four squares which have been made, while the name of a flower is written in each of the eight triangles which have been formed on the back of the oracle. It is then opened by lifting up each of the four flaps and eight predictions . . . are written in each of the triangles corresponding to the names of the flowers written on the other side. The corners are then folded back again to the centre. Next the paper is folded in half and in half again, to make a 1 3/4 inch square. This is then slightly opened out with the points held uppermost and the first fin-ger and thumb of each hand are inserted into pockets, under the flaps which bear the film stars' names and the fingers are brought together. (Opie 1959: 349-342)

The device, as constructed by Laura and Amber, is identical in design to the one described above, with adjustments made to fit a sheet of standard 8 1/2 X 11 inch notebook paper. The inscriptions are also different: instead of film stars' names, color names are the labels on the outer-most flaps and. numbers substitute for the flowers of the British version.

Once constructed, the "fortunes" wait to be told. Laura and Amber utilize fortunes such as "You are smart," "You are rich," "You are ugly" and "You are fat." While observing the girls' game in action I noticed that if a derogatory pronouncement was made, uproarious laughter would result. If a desirable fortune came up, there would be a solemn and hushed admiration. This game seemed like magic to me as the girls quickly manipulated their carefully constructed crafts; both, girls related that they did it, "because it's fun."

I also observed Laura Sieberth construct a special "Fortune Teller" for her mother, Melanie Sieberth. This game had only nice and flattering pronouncements such as: "You are pretty," "I like you," and "Your hair is nice." I think that she used this not only to manipulate positive reactions but, most importantly, to show the special love of a little girl for her mother.

When asked where they learned "Fortune Teller" Laura replied that she learned it at school and Amber said that she learned it from Laura.

I next directed my attention towards the eleven year olds. Mary Noland, a sixth-grader at a Baton Rouge middle school, was able to construct the game but informed me that it was rather out-dated for her age group. She asked several of her female peers to construct the game, but they weren't willing to do so because it wasn't "cool" or because it was "babyfied." Mary's recollection of where she learned "Fortune Teller" was vague, but she felt sure that she had learned it at school and that it was played for fun. College-aged women who I asked remembered the game, but had lost the skill to construct it. They recalled that they also played it for enjoyment. Older women (between the ages of thirty and forty) also remembered the game, but could not build it either. I remember playing the game for amusement and that it was the most fun to be the manipulator, thus controlling the "magic."

My study of this particular game confirmed findings made by Brian Sutton-Smith in his historical study of New Zealand children as early as 1920. He notes that, "Children are innovative as well as conservative ... In general younger children tend to be more conservative than older ones" (Sutton-Smith 1972: 54-66). I noticed that Laura and Amber were both sticklers of a carefully constructed game and also that their small fingers seemed more adept than eleven year old Mary's fingers in rapidly manipulating the game.

The next paper game shown to me was also of the fortune-telling genre, but with no elaborately constructed paper object. Eleven year old Mary and her same-age friends demonstrated a game called "Destiny," which utilizes a piece of loose-leaf paper and a writing implement. This game requires three lists of ten items comprised of: 1) the names of ten boys, 2) the names of ten girls and 3) the resultant "matches." The ten matches are arrived at via numbers arbitrarily chosen by the player and manipulated by a proctor. This game is enjoyed by the eleven year olds because, according to Mary, "It's fun to do when you're bored." Laura and Amber were not familiar with this game and the older women could not recall this particular game. According to an historical study of children's folklore by Alexander Chamberlain (1896: 235, 297), fortune telling has been practiced by children for thousands of years. However, it is really more of a twentieth-century phenomenon that we choose our mates. Though choosing one's own mate has been common for a few hundred years, it seems to be a relatively modern social practice. I believe that Mary and her friends may play "Destiny" as a light-hearted effort to display this right.

A similar but more complex game is called "Mash." This game uses lists that comprise: 1) three names of possible husbands, 2) three kinds of cars, 3) three kinds of jobs for husbands, 4) three kinds of jobs for wives, 5) three geographic honeymoon locales and 6) three geographic living locales. Like "Destiny," numbers are arbitrarily chosen by the player and manipulated by a proctor, but this game predicts one's future in a far more detailed manner. In the end the player learns her future husband, what they will drive, where they will live and so on. The seven year olds didn't know this game, but the older women did, always fondly and with humor. Some of the thirty to forty year old women, including myself, wished wistfully that life might be so simple.

It is important to note that while an element of "magic" or numerical chance is employed to play "Mash," Mary and her friends were careful to list only desirable elements, thus, I suspect, improving their odds of leading a lush and sometimes exotic life-style with a highly desirable mate.

The three fortune-telling games studied were scoffed at by the more sophisticated seventh-graders interviewed and were described as "babyish," "dweebish," or generally, "uncool." Hence, similar sentiments were articulated by Mary and her fellow sixth-graders in the presence of their older friends. One very important concern with younger girls is to be grown-up and to be admired and accepted by older girls. This seems to be an age-old concern, as I observed it in all of the age groups and is a strange contradiction, for older women generally seem to yearn for youth, if not in thought, in appearance.

In private, Mary confided to me that she and her sixth-grade friends enjoyed playing "Mash" and "Destiny" because, once again, they were enjoyable games. Though they both use mathematical "magic," as does "Fortune Teller," "Destiny" and especially "Mash" give a sense of control for the future, to very desirable ends.

Since the seventh-graders found these games outmoded, I discovered an important pre-teen practice which also uses loose-leaf paper and pen: the passing of stylized notes. Laura and Amber were fully aware of this practice, but the instances of note-passing in their classroom were rare because it is "against school rules." As noted, previously, younger children tend to be conservative. The sixth-graders were braver about note-passing and their notes were elaborate and well-detailed: the rare notes passed by the younger girls were two to four word statements on small scraps of paper. The sixth-grade notes were full of elaborate symbols and, interestingly, were folded as intri-cately as the "Fortune Teller" game. The symbols on these notes were as elaborate and interesting as any hieroglyphics found on ancient papyrus. On the outside layer of such a note, a mixture of symbols and words such as "2 Lisa 4 Lisa's eye's only (a drawing of eyes)," with more of the same inside. These notes also tell the recipient to "pull if not cool" with an arrow to denote the wrong way, and "pull if cool" to display the correct way to open the top secret message. I found it interesting to note that some of the symbols inside the notes indicate the prevailing popular culture style, thus displaying current trends and fads.

For example, certain customs and dress of the 1960s are currently in vogue among the pre-teen girls that I observed as well as amongst some college-aged women. Some of these symbols included were "Peace" signs, "Yin-Yang" and "Love" symbols. These carefully designed hieroglyphics, according to Mary, are used to convey friendship in the form of a "secret code" language. I suspect that these notes may be attempts to "trick" or stump teachers and to control and continue communication when verbal communication is prohibited. If found by a teacher who might be unable to decipher a specially-coded note, the participants are "safe." Similarly, notes passed by seventh-graders {usually less elaborate) may be disguised as wadded-up paper, meant to resemble litter to deceive an unwitting teacher.

Mary and her friends enjoy creating these personal art works because it allows for creative communication. The seventh-graders pass less elaborate notes to over-step authority and/or avoid penalty for speaking out of turn in class. Iona and Peter Opie's study of British school-children relates symbols similar in meaning to those of the Baton Rouge sixth-graders. The British children observed were the same age as Mary et al., but they were studied in the 1950s.

Another way the Baton Rouge subjects use plain paper and pen is with more simple games. These games seem to be for the purpose of recreation alone. One such game is "Dots." This game is constructed by a grid of dots. Once the grid is made, two players take turns connecting the dots with lines, with each player having one line per turn. As play progresses, the lines may form open-ended boxes and the player who makes the closure for the box places her initial in it, thus gaining points. When the grid is filled with all possible boxes and initials, the boxes are tallied and the person with the ownership of the most boxes wins. Laura and. Amber were not familiar with this game; however, college-aged women and older women recalled playing "dots" as late as high school. Mary and her peers play this game to relieve boredom and for enjoyment.

"Hang-man" is another game played by these elementary school aged girls. This game requires language skills and can be made simple or difficult based on the words chosen. A "Hang-man's Platform" is drawn by the proctor of this game with a series of blanks underneath. The player, or players, which can number from one to several people, then choose the letters. The proctor has a predetermined word or phrase in mind and fills in letters accordingly. If a letter is not part of the puzzle the letter is written to the side and one part of the "hang-man's" body is drawn into the "noose." If the complete body is drawn before the word or phrase is guessed, the proctor has the privilege of constructing a fresh game. If a player correctly guesses the puzzle before the "hangman" is completely drawn she then becomes the proctor of a new game.

Like "Dots," "Hangman" is played for recreation. I have seen "Hangman" sold in stores as a commercially-constructed toy in computer form as well as on a simple loose-leaf paper. Everyone I interviewed was familiar with this game.

It has been interesting studying the "origami" of games and finding similarities among other-culture children. It is also interesting to-note that the games and the like were remembered by older women and that the games begin to appear when children interrelate in school. All of these games depend on the child's ability to read, write and to manipulate elements. They also display a joyful creativity evident in these wonderful young girls of all ages.


Chamberlain, Alexander F. 1896. The Child and Childhood in Folk-Thought. New York: Macmillan.

Opie, Iona & Peter. 1959. The Lore and Language of School-Children. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1972. The Folkgames of Children. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Lisa Noland is a writer and has worked for the Louisiana Conservationist magazine and now for the Louisiana House of Representatives. She wrote this article for a folklore class at Louisiana State University. This article was first published in the 1994 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.