"Long ago and far away there was a little village at the foot of Mount Fuji," began Allison Zito, the teacher of the Japanese Paper Figures class at Chestnut Hill's Morris Arboretum. "And the people of the village were quite happy. But every spring, when the cherry blossoms fell from the trees, they began to hear a grumbling from a giant dragon at the top of the mountain."

The children's arts and crafts class took place Sunday at the arboretum's visitor center, located at 100 E. Northwestern Ave.

The class was offered in lieu of the annual blooming of the cherry blossom trees, celebrated internationally and at the arboretum throughout the month of April.

"We always try to do something here because they've got some beautiful cherry blossoms at the arboretum," Zito said. "There's a lot of inspiration here: natures, good stories. I love telling stories."

The afternoon started with a tale, told by Zito, about a small, Japanese village, saved from fiery defeat because the village's children were kind to a lonely dragon, stopping him from destroying the town.

Thomas Kivlehan, a Morris Arboretum member, has been bringing his two children to classes at the arboretum for more than two years. He brought Molly, 6, and Declan, 4, to the Japanese Paper Figures class after his wife found the class on the arboretum's site and the couple thought it would be interesting for the children.

"I love that [Zito] puts the art in context by providing a cultural background through a fun story," Kivlehan said. "I was also delighted that she pointed out a couple facts about Japanese art in terms the kids could understand. I learned from it too."

Zito acknowledged: "I always try to give positive messages, like kindness is the greatest gift of all. And I like that children get to be the heroes [in this story] because I have children in my class and oftentimes they have to be saved as opposed to be being heroes. So it's nice to switch."

The children then crafted Japanese paper figures themselves. After a great deal of cutting, coloring and pasting, each child had his or her own figure, wearing the traditional Japanese kimono, a dress which is also part of the Cherry Blossom Festival celebrations in Japan.

"We came to a class about two years ago that was taught by [Zito]," Kivlehan said. "In the class, the kids made paper dragons and they're still hanging on the fridge."

An achieved hand weaver, Zito started teaching at the arboretum in 2006 while working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through an outreach program between the museum and arboretum, she started teaching during that year's cherry blossom festivities.

"This is great because the kids get to create on their own," Zito said. "Art is very empowering...The most exciting thing for me is that everyone has their own personality and with all the same materials and story, everybody comes up with their own unique thing."

The arboretum will continue to celebrate the cherry blossoms throughout the month. The festivities culminate with their annual Japanese Cherry Blossom Celebrations on April 14 and 21, which are done in conjunction with the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia and Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Becky Kerner and Kris Kitts are reporters with Philadelphia Neighborhoods/Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, a content partner of NewsWorks