OctoGifts at STEM CON 2020: Paper Play on Steroids

updated Saturday 5/2/2020


OctoGifts STEM CON 2020 origami

Zoom interview with Kerry Tracy from STEM CON 2020 (credit: Meredith Anderson)


On Monday, April 20, 2020, an email hit my inbox that was the first of its kind. For me, anyway.


STEM CON 2020 zoom invite

How often do you receive a work-related Zoom invite addressed to both you and your kid? 

I've got to hand it to Sebastian. I wasn't sure whether he'd accept. It's pretty hard these days to get him and his older brother TJ just to pose for family pictures. Add to that the fact that he's sporting a DIY quarantine haircut. Yet he joined me on camera for an audience of 4000+ educators at STEM CON 2020

He shared how a 5th grade friend, origami, and the Maker movement inspired him to launch OctoGifts. While Sebastian and his buddy are now in 8th grade and live 1100 miles apart, his friend STILL has the original OctoGift. It even survived an out-of-state move! Knowing that it passed the Marie Kondo test brings Sebastian joy. 

Sebastian took pictures of his creation before wrapping it.

very first octogift candy dispenser card

We also shot a video of that first prototype in action.

Sebastian will never forget the look of wonder and joy on his friend's face when he opened his gift! 

Fast forward two years and many prototypes later (back story is here). Here's a video of the improved design. Even the video quality is better, thanks to a DIY lightbox cobbled together from cardboard boxes and tin foil.

How do you transform paper and cardboard into fun and functional 3D objects? You leverage engineering habits of mind and spatial awareness. These are the skills Sebastian uses to design our DIY cards, keepsakes, and craft kits.

Here's some good news: these skills can be developed in children of all ages. And you don't even need to spend a dime.

In fact, the simpler the supplies, the more creative children become. 

At STEM CON 2020, we shared some of our favorite strategies:

1. Get them unzipping 3D objects in their heads.

Net files are awesome for helping students visualize how flat images can be transformed into 3D objects. Print these files and have your students cut them out and assemble them! They're great for geometry lessons.

2. Have them break down cardboard boxes before recycling them. 

That's a free hands-on learning experience. They'll see how tissue boxes, takeout containers, gift boxes, and the like are made from flat sheets of material. Plus your solid waste management company will thank you.

3. Engage them in origami. 

It's great at promoting 3D thinking! Sebastian and TJ started doing origami when they were in preK. It is an extremely portable activity and makes a great diversion on long plane rides, swim meets, etc. Start with simple shapes, and then over time migrate to harder ones. (If you've got a classroom full of origami rookies, trust me -- you need to start with simple.)

Here are some great starter origami models:

The dog looks like this when completed:
simple dog origami model

Once you get a few of those under your belt, advance to more sophisticated models.

Over the years we have built an origami library.

origami books

You don't even need to buy origami paper. Just use a dollar bill. 

dollar bill origami

We also enjoy Jo Nakashima's youtube channel. That's where Sebastian found instructions to make these dragon beauties.

origami orange dragon Jo Nakashima

Jo Nakashima red dragon claws

Sebastian gets a kick out of the claws on this dragon!

Jo Nakashima origami Pegasus

Pegasus designed by Quentin Trollip


4. Boredom + lack of resources = mental fertilizer

Sebastian's most interesting creations were born from boredom and lack of resources. While he now owns a 3D printer, he had been wanting one since he was in elementary school. At the time, I kept pushing back. He had access to 3D printers at school, and we didn't have the space.

I challenged him to see what he could do with cardboard and glue. We had plenty of that lying around. (Cue the eye rolls.) At first he was frustrated, but then he began to discover the hidden utility in ordinary objects. Paper towel rolls, toothpicks, tissue boxes...all began to assume alter egos.

Soon he began begging me NOT to take out the recycling bin just yet.

5. Embrace engineering habits of mind.  

I touched briefly on my past work teaching kindergartners how to think like engineers. This effort would not have been possible without the support of countless colleagues and families at Kingsley Montessori School in Boston, MA, and I'm forever grateful to them.  More information can be found here:

  1. TEDxJacksonville talk 
  2. NAIS Independent Teacher article. Discusses the supplies and strategies we employed in the classroom.
  3. Museum of Science, Boston EiE blog article 
  4. Family-friendly digital storybook about the Kindergarten Engineering Design Workshop. Has many more examples of student work than I could show at TEDxJacksonville. Best of all, it has lots of pictures of proud 5- and 6-year-old engineers.

Several conference attendees asked if Sebastian does talks too. The answer is yes! Some of them have been recorded and you can share the videos or podcast with your students. Head over to our Press page to check them out.

Thank you to Kerry Tracy, Meredith Anderson, and the entire STEM CON 2020 team. This was an amazing opportunity. And thank YOU, my fellow teachers and teachers-at-heart, for all that you do to inspire young innovators.


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  • Thank you for reading and commenting, Julie! All the best to you and your students. Happy folding and making!

    Melanie Flores
  • Thank you for sharing, I loved hearing your story. Ordered origami books for my library. I can’t wait to see what students will make.

    Julie Krueger

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