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Origami and Shoelaces

Do you remember when you were first able to tie shoelaces by yourself? The task is usually mastered between the age three to five. For adults tying shoelaces is a piece of cake, but for young children this is hard to master.
Tying one's shoelaces is a typical Activities of Daily Life (ADL) that as adult we do almost unconsciously. Unfortunately though, it is impossible for people to finger shoelaces even if nothing is wrong with their eyesight and finger muscles when they have a lesion in a certain part of the brain. The cause of this motor apraxia is the malfunction of mental activities known as executive functions. With this malady, the coordination between the brain and finger movement returns the way it was in early infanthood. 
ADLs are divided into three functional categories: for sustaining life, for adapting environment, and for creating. For example, using utensils to eat or controlling one's bladder is ADLs for sustaining life. Tying shoelaces and dressing are ADLs for adapting to the environment. Cutting with scissors and drawing with a pencil are ADLs for creating. 
By the time they are four to six years of age, children acquire most ADLs through play, training and helping around the house. From the neuropsychological perspective, the acquisition of ADLs in childhood is the process of establishing mental activities called executive functions. These help children deflect distractions, recall goals and take steps needed to reach them. To achieve a goal in work or play for instance, people need to be able to remember their aim (use hindsight), prompt themselves about what they need to do to reach the goal (use forethought), keep their emotions reined in and motivate themselves. * 1 
By the time they are ready to enter elementary school, children should master basic ADLs because school-age youngsters have to be independent from their parents in terms of ADL while they are at school. But what is more important for children entering school is the activation of executive functions which are believed to reside in the frontal region of brain. Establishment of these functions reaches critical stage during the typical neural development in early childhood.
Young children start to acquire ADLs by observing a real model, or copying what happens in front of them. This requires the operation of working memory. In parallel with the development linguistic abilities, most children speak out loud to themselves frequently, reminding themselves how to perform a particular task or trying to cope with a problem. * 2
To use self-directed speech is to transfer the contents of working memory to long-term memory. If examined carefully, self-directed speech shows a communication pattern between working memory and long-term memory, or roughly can be said to reflect verbally the operation of the executive function itself. As children mature, they internalize, or make private, such executive functions which prevent others from knowing their thoughts. * 3 
At the same time, they become able to interpret their thoughts to others precisely with letters and diagrams. Further, they begin to learn how to execute tasks through written materials or oral instruction without mimicking actual models. Finally, they invent or create new executive processes for each new problem they encounter that cannot be solved in or by an old execution system.
Origami and tying shoelaces seem to play a very important role in promoting the executive function in young children. To tie shoelaces, or to fold a piece of paper into a bird, one needs to identify the material, have a goal or an image of the end product, and then take the correct steps needed to implement what is in one's mind. In early childhood, a youngster's struggle to learn to tie shoelaces properly stimulates such mental activities as the operation of working memory and the control of emotions, motivations and state of arousal.
Japanese children usually learn the skills of making origami and tying shoelaces at about the same stage of childhood. These skills, however, differ considerably in the range of designs to be mastered. The shapes of shoelaces knots are very limited; by contrast, origami has numerous variations in design. It might be said, therefore, that mastery of origami more effectively promote the fluency of executive function in terms of text comprehension and motor performance of young children's fingers. 
Origami enjoys a centuries-long history in Japan. At the end of the 19th century when Japan introduced a modern education system in schools, the government designated origami as a compulsory art subject for young children. Even today, Japanese children usually must learn origami while they are in kindergarten or elementary school. 
To date no researcher has examined the causality between this particular art form and the acquisition of the executive function in early childhood. In the case of older Japanese however, origami is commonly used as a therapy to promote recovery of the ability to manipulate objects after sensory impairment or the loss of motor skills. It seems that the memory of creating origami is an executive function that is retained subconsciously for long time. 
To make a speculative conclusion, it might be said that for Japanese children the process of learning origami may not only serve as a model for solving similar problems of daily life, but can also contribute to the mastery of certain tasks by many manufacturing professionals. Further, it might even be said that origami contributes, to some degree, to the economy and industry of modern Japan, or in other words to the gross national engineering skill. 
*Origami is the craft of folding paper to make models of animals, people, and objects.
1, 2, 3. Russell A. Barkley, "Attention-Defect Hyperactivity Disorder", Scientific American (September 1998)
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