I worked at a state hospital, inpatient mental health, for my first Level II fieldwork (3 months rotation). While I was there, I created a group treatment plan to target a need. That need was anti-social personality disorder and/or isolating behaviors.   

Whooooah! That is a difficult crowd; but I knew I was the one for the job.

How do you get people who don’t like to participate, avoid crafts, people, and fun like a plague? 

Origami Airplanes! 

Origami is associated with crafts, which I have found, can have a negative stigma.  Paper airplanes is a sly way of introducing people into the joy of origami. 

A theme that remains among the treatments and activities I do, is that I focus on low-cost or easily accessible activities. I was led to focus on this due to the state hospital setting being under-funded, high security, and high level of safety risk. Also, the majority of this patient population is from poverty if not homeless. 

An example in contrast to origami airplanes is painting birdhouses. This is still a great activity. The weakness with painting a birdhouse is, it’s over with quickly. Also, many will not engage in this activity frequently on their own time. 

The value of paper airplanes, especially complex designs, is it can become a long-term engaging hobby. There is also a broad range of difficulty that requires only paper. I say this from personal experience, not empirical research. 

Trial and Error With Group 

I made the instructions visual and tactile

The first trial using paper airplanes was nearly a failure!  

It took several afternoons learning and preparing these visual guides. Each had mini step-by-step examples of every fold. I had paper ready and copies of instructions printed and varying levels of difficulty to grade the activity. 

Yet not one of the 5 patients in the group could get past step two. A few even struggled with step one, which was to fold the paper in half. 

One patient remarked: 

“This is making me feel depressed, I can’t even fold a piece of paper.”  

I used simple to complex designs

My heart sank as my grand vision of joy and excitement faded away behind poorly folded squares of paper. 

Thankfully, I had one last resort that saved the day. I quickly hid my intricate paper airplanes and diagrams. Then, I took out the most simple design that fit on one page with a only a few folds. 

Step by step, I began teaching and assisting patients individually. The final products were quite uneven and literally rough around the edges. However, they did fly and joy was restored. 

That is a lesson I love to reflect on.  

How I got started with paper airplanes 

I got started with this activity when browsing the crafts book aisle at the library. I brought the book home and became engaged for hours making airplanes. Two years later, I purchased the book for myself. 

The majority of LaFosse’s designs are complex and work well for higher functioning patients. I worked with Allen’s Cognitive Levels at the state hospital. I would recommend Lafosse’s paper airplanes for a cognitive level of 5. This might also work with a cognitive level of a high 4 if the patients are already skilled at paper folding. 

My favorite airplane book!

It is also important to know that I find the difficulty of complex designs is teaching en masse; in a group setting. Lower functioning patients could likely still learn the art of paper folding with one-to-one treatment in a variety of ways. 

Grading the Activity 

  • Visual Aids: I have still successfully used my step-by-step visual aid with mini-paper airplane folds. This works for those patients that learn better with the tactile element of being able to touch and see the folds. 
  • Pre-made Folds: I will keep pre-made models with various levels of completion ready for me to unfold and refold for demonstration. Especially for my go-to designs. 
  • Handouts: For high functioning patients, a simple copy of the instructions work well. Plus, copies can be left with them to work on later. 
  • “Just-right-challenge”: I have noted a tendency for some patients to want to begin with the most complex and intricate airplane. I avoid this by limiting options as a means to provided the “just-right-challenge.” 

A paper airplane competition is a future goal of mine. I’d like to facilitate the social participation element by having the competition utilize a long unit hallway. 

My favorite designs


Adding Education  

There is already the crafting element of teaching and engaging patients in a new art form. Additionally, I often like to mix a relatable educational element into my groups as well. Sometimes this can be a bit of a stretch. Though I have favorited addressing the topic of goal setting with paper airplanes. 

Using a goal setting method such as S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). Another example is RHUMBA (Relevant, How Long, Understandable, Measurable, Behavioral, Achievable). 


There are likely other great books out there with simple designs, I would of course love suggestions. There are also FREE resources online; PDFs and YouTube videos. Here is a few suggestions to get started: 

The classic stereotypical paper airplane “The Classic Dart” 

35 Page Booklet with Several Designs:  

A website with several downloadable PDFs:

And for the overachievers who want to learn about a paper Boomerang:


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