Historians debate the origins of paper airplanes. Early attempts at constructing flying machines fascinated children and adults alike. The success of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 fostered renewed hope of powered flight and no doubt contributed to the purported invention, in 1909, of the paper airplane. More than 100 years later, on November 9, 2017, The Strong announced that the paper airplane, along with the game Clue and the Wiffle Ball, had joined the elite of the toy world in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Play with paper airplanes is far from formulaic and constrained. Where some toys require financial investment, paper airplanes start with a simple sheet of paper, coupled with dexterity, to produce a toy with infinite aeronautical possibilities. The principles that make an airplane fly are the same that govern paper versions. Jack Northrup, co-founder of Lockheed Corporation, built flying paper models in 1930 to test certain flight designs. Paper’s high strength and density make it similar, scale-wise, to the materials used to construct airplanes. Paper airplanes clearly meet the criteria for induction into the hall of fame—longevity, icon-status, and promoting discovery and innovation. But the induction of the paper airplane into the hall of fame caused me anxiety for one simple reason: I can’t fold a paper airplane.
Even after I studied the detailed instructions provided in The Klutz Book of Paper Airplanes and I watched enthusiastic paper folders present instructional online videos, I failed to fold a paper airplane worthy of flight or display. I became acutely aware of my deficiency in what Dr. Howard Gardner, former professor of education at Harvard University, refers to as the Logical-Mathematical Intelligence and Spatial Intelligence. I spent hours practicing folds and scrutinizing beautiful pieces of origami. I jumped on the bandwagon with John Smith, a retired statistician and founder of the British Origami Society, who advocated for “Forgiving Folds” or paper models that can withstand inaccurate folds.
It took some convincing, but I have started to consider the paper airplane from a different perspective. I love one of the components that make-up play with a paper airplane—design. Though the aerodynamics of paper airplanes remain the same, people play with the possibilities of shape, color, and weight. Pop artist Peter Max created an entire book of psychedelic paper airplane templates in the 1970s. Max invited readers to get their “message across with a paper airplane in cosmic colors.” Artist S. Astrid Bin used one 500-sheet ream of paper to create 1,000 paper airplanes for his installation, One Thousand Means of Escape. Bin noted that he loves to throw paper airplanes and to imagine “that they fly away somewhere else.” Play with paper airplanes also taught me an important lesson about the value of varied intelligences.
The case displaying the paper airplane in The Strong’s Toy Halls of Fame exhibit illustrates two of Dr. Howard Gardner’s intelligences—Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (facility in using one’s hands to produce or transform things) and Interpersonal Intelligence (the ability to perceive and make distinctions in the moods, intentions, motivations, and feelings of other people). My museum colleagues with inclinations to a paper folding hobby came to my rescue and folded beautiful, creative paper airplanes for the display. And we had fun throwing a few paper airplanes around the office, too.
For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Michelle and her museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff Blog.