A couple of weeks ago, I signed up with PlasticFreeJuly.org to commit to reducing my consumption of single-use plastic. It’s bothered me for years and for years I’ve been gradually chipping away at it, always having my own cloth bags, then adding bamboo straws and now a little cutlery kit. But I still felt it was a drop in the ocean (literally) when I looked at the mounds of plastic packaging we put out for “recycling” every week as a family.
To my family’s concern, I am often unable to resist picking up other people’s rubbish to put it in the bin. I have also inherited my mother’s courage and cheek to say with a friendly smile, “Er, I think you might have accidentally dropped something:-)” when necessary. As a supporter of One Planet Singapore I sometimes head out for a walk and a proper rubbish pick with its founder, (my friend Georgia Mor) and my barbecue tongs. I still can’t get over the number of plastic bags I see floating on a breeze or – even more galling – intentionally, almost politely hung on bushes in pavement-side shrubbery.
We used to have a random selection of local organic fruit and veg delivered by the wonderful Shiok Farm every week, which was a joy – for the most part. However, after a while we found we regularly received produce that didn’t suit our tastes as a family and sadly went to waste. Many a time we bemoaned our hens, ducks and geese in France, who would have gladly helped us out!
So from this month I’ve made a commitment to brave the heat and humidity and buy all our fruit and veg at the local wet market, where most produce is sourced locally and available without plastic. I am able to buy everything I would usually buy without any plastic packaging whatsoever and at a fraction of the price for online delivery or in a supermarket. I also get to chat and joke with the stall holders and other shoppers and feel more connected to my local neighbourhood. I end up sweaty, but happy every time.
As a creative, I’m always magnetically drawn to upcycling and repurposing discarded materials that are worthless trash to some, but precious (free!) treasure to an artist. What a senseless, stupid waste to throw them in the bin after just one use, let alone drop them casually in the street to clog a drain or wash into the ocean. Bangladesh banned plastic bags all the way back in 2002 due to increased flood devastation when discarded bags blocked drainage systems. In 2021, extreme weather conditions (most recently fatal flooding in Germany) and vast forest fires make for apocalyptic news reports on a daily basis.
That phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. “Live off money” is indeed what we all have to do, when we can’t sustain ourselves; when we become reliant on others, on the money-based decisions of powerful corporations and we relinquish control of our own lives.
If we don’t get back to nature, plant our own edibles à la Ron Finley and Rob Greenfield, feed ourselves and nurture and protect our planet’s glorious biodiversity, then we will be entirely at the mercy of those with the money. What was that “native american” quote again?
What are we waiting for?
Anyway, here are some things I’ve been making to calm myself down and transform my own personal mountain of shame (consisting mainly of Redmart bags from circuit breaker food deliveries, but also other bags that have snuck into our house). This wall hanging greeted clients to my first “No Comment” painting-play studio in Singapore.
The Redmart bags used to be designed with the friendly label “Hi, I’m oxo-biodegradable. I will become water, biomass, and carbon dioxide if kept outdoors over time. Reuse me for storing trash, holding wet umbrellas, protecting your shoes and…even shower caps!” How charming!
I know the majority of people living in Singapore apartment blocks use bags this standard size as bin bags (since they slide perfectly down the rubbish chute), so they generally get two uses, not just one. But then ALL rubbish in Singapore is incinerated. So what is the point of telling us it will “biodegrade if kept outdoors over time?” Those Redmart bags were a pretty shade of green – of course. I wonder if their greenwashing bothered other people too, as they seem to have abandoned that campaign and are now using plain white plastic bags.
It is a pretty shade of green though… so it ended up in these too:
I used the leftover scraps to make these unique, funky, reusable gift wraps.
One Planet Singapore have asked me to run some plastic upcycling workshops for them, which I am really excited about.
I’ve also been a bit obsessed with repurposing unsellable 2nd hand school uniform, so watch this space for more of my adventures in upcycling!
The loooong text below was written as part of my masters level studies in international education.
I was asked to select and critically consider a pedagogical approach and situate it within a broader theoretical structure, illustrated with evidence from my own practice. I hope that anyone else interested in Le Jeu De Peindre who feels frustrated by the lack of material in English might find this useful. I feel very blessed to be bilingual English-French and to have been able to access this incredible philosophy, so I feel it is my duty as a mother-tongue English speaker to share my joy with the non-francophone, English-speaking community. I’d love to hear from you if you manage to read this and have any comments or questions! And if you use or share this document, thank you for crediting me:-)
N.B. Since writing, Arno has announced an online training course in English, running from end September-early October 2021! Let me know if you are planning to join! He has also copyrighted the term “Play-Of-Painting” in English, which differs slightly from my translation “Painting-Play”.
Le Jeu de Peindre:the untapped potential of a pedagogical approachwhich bridges established theories of learning and unlearning
Section 1: Introduction
Section 2: The origins of Painting-Play and its major components
Section 3: Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach
Section 4: Painting-Play’s correlation with major theories and frameworks of learning
1) Art Education
i) General art education
2) Learning through play
3) Learning for wellbeing
4) Learning for Global Citizenship
Section 5: Areas for further research
Section 6: Conclusion
Section 1: Introduction
I will first explain the meaning of “Le Jeu De Peindre” and continue by using the most widely accepted English translation. When translated literally, it becomes “The Game Of Painting” in English. However, the word-for-word translation does not convey the nuances intended by the original. Stern has expressed a preference for an emphasis on play (creative activity) rather than “game” (activity limited by educational and social objectives) (Frantz and Stern, 2018, p27). I will thus employ the term “Painting-Play” throughout my writing.
I was an arts teacher in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for 20 years and subsequently trained with Arno Stern to become a facilitator of “Painting-Play”. This is my current practice in Singapore, where I run a studio called “No Comment”. I intend to critically examine Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach by demonstrating commonalities with established theories of learning (and unlearning), whilst exploring the challenges and opportunities inherent in the approach and areas for further research.
In order to do this, I will first describe the practice of Painting-Play: its origins and associated theories, in particular those of Le Closlieu and La Formulation. I will then argue why it can be considered a pedagogical approach and offer explanations as to why it has not yet been universally recognised as such. In doing so, I will compare and contrast Painting-Play with other theories of learning. Along the way, I will provide evidence from my own experience as a visual art teacher and Painting-Play facilitator. To finish, I will suggest areas of future research.
Section 2: The origins of Painting-Play and its major components
Painting-Play was invented by Arno Stern, a jewish German whose family fled to France in 1933. He began developing the “Painting-Play” approach when he was invited to serve as a youth worker in a home for war orphans in Fontenay-Aux-Roses, (just outside Paris) and it became his life’s work – rigorously researched and honed over the 74 years between 1946 and the present day. As early as 1951, he was designated an expert on art education and presented on an equal footing with Henri Matisse and Jean Piaget at the first UNESCO Symposium on Art Education (UNESCO, 1954).
The word “Closlieu” was invented by Stern. It literally translates as “closed place”, but has been adopted by many practitioners in their own language. Stern began to create this unique studio by boarding up the windows in order to maximise limited painting space in the orphanage’s attic. Unintentionally, this served to shut out distractions (the surrounding town, weather, seasons, time of day, reminders of emotional and social pressures…) and thus allowed for a higher level of focus. Having arrived at the orphanage directly from a Swiss refugee camp, Stern had not had the opportunity to pursue studies in art, education or psychology. For this reason he felt in no position to direct, correct or analyse the children’s painting. He trusted their instincts and observed that despite the psychopedagogue director’s goal to conduct a study of the orphans’ self and family portraits, the prescribed topic which seemed “plus riche, plus vrai” (richer and more authentic) was the “dessin libre”: free choice drawings or paintings (Frantz and Stern, 2018, pp 50-51).
In the centre of Le Closlieu lay a table with an array of paints in ink pots. Over time, this became unified and sophisticated, taking the form of a “table-palette”. It now consists of a painted wooden table ensconcing 18 paint-dishes with corresponding brush sets and water pots and stores the larger paint pots below (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Arno Stern at the table-palette in his Closlieu, Paris (Stern, 2013, p.26)
When Stern left the orphanage after two years employment, he set up a studio in the centre of Paris where he could continue his newly invented career as “servant-praticien” of children’s painting. This is difficult to translate into English, given our aversion to the word servant. English speakers might be more comfortable with the term “practitioner” or “facilitator”, but the notion of serving is central to the role.
It was in his first Paris studio that he added the element of Kraft paper covering the walls from floor to ceiling, for practical purposes. Over time, the surface became covered in a shimmering multitude of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal lines, as paint escaped the edges of the papers attached to the walls (Stern, 2011, pp 19-21). This has become a trademark of the Closlieu space (Figure 2).
Figure 2: “No Comment”, Singapore (Shaw, 2020)
In order to correctly set up a Closlieu, additional conditions and materials are necessary, as outlined in Appendix 1. Around 200 Closlieu exist all over the world, almost exclusively in Europe (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Map of Closlieux around the world (Munteaunu, 2020)
Despite their very different contexts and life experiences – a small town orphanage and a bourgeois Paris studio, Stern noticed a surprising correlation between the children’s spontaneous, free paintings. The children newest to painting all exhibited the same gestures and forms along a limited range of developmental trajectories. The more dextrous painters exhibited a range of figures and object-images, which could be categorised as a limited set of forms. Fortunately Stern had kept, dated and named hundreds of his charges’ paintings and was able to go back and study them in detail. He discovered that all the paintings could be distilled to a set of 70 figures, which he eventually named “La Formulation”(Figure 4).
Figure 4: Symbolic representations of the 70 elements of La Formulation (Stern, 2011, pp 138-139)
His passion and curiosity led him to seek more research on children’s drawing. There was a developing interest in the concept of “children’s art”, but no controlled, empirical study had yet taken place. So over the 1960s and 70s, he secured grants to study the innate drawing and painting patterns of unschooled children (and some adults) all over the world. His monumental body of documentation now encompasses around 500,000 archived and catalogued paintings and drawings created under strict conditions by people of all ages in numerous European countries, Afghanistan, Canada, Ethiopia, Guatemala, New Guinea, Niger, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru and the United States. (Stern, 2011, 2013; Frantz and Stern 2018)
Stern’s archive seems to confirm the existence of a universally shared visual “language”. Stern has hypothesized in collaboration with the maternologist Jean-Marie Delassus and the neurobiologist Gerald Hüther that this primal and universal language is epigenetically pre-programmed and evidence of foetal learning (Dellasus and Hüther in Frantz and Stern, 2018, p28-29).
However, La Formulation and the sense of self-knowledge, balance and wellbeing it derives may only be accessible when spontaneous, uninhibited self-expression is allowed to occur. He suggests that given society’s expectations in most every day settings (home, school, work), there are few opportunities for true spontaneity. The Closlieu is a safe space which feels different and separate from everywhere else, where the rigorous rules of engagement (Appendix 2) are defined, yet freeing, and thus it provides the ideal conditions for La Formulation to arise.
Stern claims that La Formulation has been paradoxically endangered by the ascendance of art education, visual overstimulation and consumerism in today’s society (Stern 2011, 2013, 2017, 2019, 2020a; Frantz and Stern 2018).
Section 3: Painting-Play as a pedagogical approach
Painting-Play is clearly a practice, but is it a pedagogical approach in and of itself? It could be argued that over and above the obvious skill development in painting, Painting-Play’s learning goals include discovery through play; self-expression; mindful creativity; suspension of judgement and letting go of one’s inner critic; stress management; problem solving; self-confidence; self-control; resilience; empowerment; solidarity and an appreciation of human diversity.
The above can be grouped into four broad learning goals:
Self-expression and creativity
21st century learning initiatives have only recently insisted that wellbeing and global citizenship be included in curricula as a standard expectation. Self-expression is yet to be acknowledged as a priority in mainstream education.
Section 4: Painting-Play’s correlation with major theories and frameworks of learning
As alluded previously, Painting-Play relates to four major theories of learning:
art education (including self-expression and creativity)
learning through play
learning for wellbeing
learning for global citizenship
These themes are overlapping, but I will try to tackle each one in turn.
Painting-Play is not art education, but it overlaps with elements of art education, such as painting, self-expression and creativity. Before looking at self-expression and creativity, I will examine how it relates to general art education.
i) General Art Education
Stern wrote: “I distinguish between Panting-Play and painting art. Painting art belongs to the artists. Painting-Play belongs to everyone else” (Stern, 2015 and 2019).
Although Painting-Play looks like art making and undoubtedly develops painting skills, it is not to be confused with art education. According to Stern, art is the subject in a dialogue between an artist and an audience. Painting-Play does not create a product and does not require an audience (Stern, 2019). In fact, prior teaching and learning in formal art class settings may have to be unlearned in order to fully immerse in the Painting-Play process.
The facilitator serves the participants, contingent to their needs – specifically not taking on the role of a teacher or instructor. Painting-Play could be described as being autodidactic, for “learning can only be facilitated: we cannot teach another person directly” (Rogers in Office of Learning and Teaching, 2005, p. 9). Painting-players need no prior knowledge of La Formulation. It will naturally emerge as they play without extrinsic motivation or expectations.
Good practice in contemporary art education is thought to cover a wide range of techniques, media, skills, history, trips to art galleries, visiting artists, creativity, design and opportunities for self-expression. However, many art classes are thoroughly prescriptive and repetitive (earning the label “cookie cutter”). Children are urged to draw neatly, colour inside the lines, render images as realistically as possible, copy famous masterpieces or the teacher’s own work.
The act of suspending judgement is the greatest challenge of Painting-Play. In formal art education, assessment, evaluation, grading, comparison, competition, certificates, awards and exhibitions are the norm. These become motivating factors for some children and adults, so in the free and non-judgemental setting of Painting-Play, some people initially feel uncomfortable. Aiming for perfection, to “get ahead” or to “be the best” in other contexts may mean that participants have a harsh inner critic. Regular practice in Painting-Play may gradually soften the inner critic’s voice and help to develop a trans-disciplinary growth mindset (Dweck, 2008).
Modern day teacher-training and parenting manuals promote positive reinforcement in order to instil good behaviour and attitudes in children. Thus even those who are open to the concept of unguided and un-judged self-expression may have to unlearn the habit of seeking or giving praise for paintings in the Closlieu. Some people are sceptical about the concept of prohibiting praise in Le Closlieu, but as a former art teacher I have experienced the following: 1) The crippling dependence on a teacher or parent’s approval that well-intentioned praise can create. 2) The discouragement of the student who is not praised. 3) Children’s innate understanding that indiscriminate, blanket praise is worthless.
Stakeholders may be put off by the lack of educational capital or tangible product, given that no techniques are taught; paintings don’t have to be “finished”; paintings are kept and archived by the facilitator and there are no exhibitions. “If you don’t let us take the paintings home, then what is the takeaway?” one puzzled parent inquired (Parent, 2020). Justifying Painting-Play’s learning goals and theory as worth paying for may be particularly challenging in some cultures where enrichment activities are centred around academic, sporting or artistic “success”, as defined by performance and competition (Troman, Jeffrey and Raggl, 2007).
Stern refers to “parasites” (Stern, 2019) he observes in participants’ paintings. Techniques such as perspective, shading or cartooning may have been learned in formal art classes, online tutorials or elsewhere, but they are distinct from the spontaneous self-expression of La Formulation. After some practice, these “parasites” tend to disappear in Le Closlieu because participants begin fully tuning in to their natural mode of expression, free of interference.
Painting-Play could be said to nurture both self-expression and creativity. Stern would probably agree with the distinction and definition given by Strickland: “The former is as necessary as breathing; the latter is the interface between self-expression and the outside world” (Strickland in a foreword by Smit in Craft, 2005).
In the Closlieu, participants are encouraged to paint whatever they feel compelled to paint. Non-judgement and the lack of fear of how others might react allows for self-expression to flow uninhibited. Carl Rogers observed that “significant learning occurs in an environment where threat to the learner is reduced to a minimum” (Rogers in Office of Learning and Teaching, 2005, p. 9).
Each painting-player creates individual paintings, never collaborative works. Painting-Play maintains learning within the Vygotskian Zone Of Potential or Proximal Development, because La Formulation is accessed appropriately as the individual develops. Equally, the painting-player accesses this language at his/her own pace and scale. Paintings can be revisited in subsequent sessions and grow infinitely large, effectively allowing painting-players to manage their own learning for mastery. As Erikson said, “The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery” (Erikson, 1950, p222).
In “Is it possible to teach – or even define – creativity?” Ward states that most parties agree that “creative people are good at generating ideas, digging deeper into ideas, open to exploring ideas and listen to their ‘inner voice”’ (Ward, 2017). Painting in the Closlieu, could be likened to an infinite visual brainstorm, where every idea is valid. Concepts, scenes, symbols and structures can be revisited cyclically.
Stern refers to everyone who paints in his Closlieu as “les enfants du Closlieu” (children of the Closlieu), irrelevant of their age. The multi-age setting and playful non-judgemental process help adults “stay in part a child” (Piaget, 1962), retaining their child-like mental agility and creativity.
The term Mini C creativity (Kaufmann and Beghetto, 2009) refers to learning and meaning making in everyday life; the connections we make between phenomena we encounter, such as sharing understandings of Bruner’s spiral curriculum through the process of symbolic representation (Paley, Crawford, Kinney, Koons, Mendoza, Knight and Price, 2011) or painting a picture in the Closlieu to show new learning. (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Closlieu painting (ecology and community) (Frantz and Stern, 2018)
I hope I have demonstrated that substantial unlearning of general art education is required in order to take advantage of the learning for self-expression and creativity that Painting-Play offers.
Learning through play
After more than a century of theorising, but very little scientific evidence, play, defined by Brown as “any kind of purposeless, all-consuming, restorative activity” (Brown, 2009) is finally being empirically proven to be “the single most significant factor in determining our success and happiness” (ibid.)
Unguided play is a balancing and indissociable counterpart to painting in the process of Painting-Play. Thus Painting-Play is rooted in the pedagogical approach of learning for self-expression, creativity, wellbeing and global citizenship through the means of play.
Winnicot succinctly captured the connection between creativity, self-expression and play: “It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (Winnicott, 1971 p72-73).
Play can be broken down into types, such as locomotor, pretend, social, object or language play (Smith and Pellegrini, 2008). In Painting-Play, participants play with colours and elements of La Formulation. Barring the addition of a “painting-play” type, I would argue that play in Le Closlieu falls under the category of language play (La Formulation as a language).
Playing with visuals allows for alternative meaning making and internalising of new concepts. One recently publicized example was George Monbiot’s niece exhibiting her developing grasp of ecology (Monbiot, 2020) through an expansive work painted during Covid-19 lockdown, which exhibited multiple elements of La Formulation and was reminiscent of paintings seen in the Closlieu. (Figures 5 and 6).
Figure 6: George Monbiot’s niece’s ecology painting (Monbiot, 2020)
Vygostky wrote, “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” (Vygotsky 1966/67, p16 in Bodrova and Leong, 2015) He seems to be suggesting that play is the most effective route to positive growth and achieving one’s potential. In the Closlieu there is a literal levelling of the playing field.
In another respect, Painting-Play is also similar to “parallel” play seen in young children, when they play with the same materials within the same space, but not collaboratively (Parten in Smith, Cowie and Blades, (2009).
Learning For Wellbeing
According to Naci and Ioannidis, the term “wellbeing” is used to refer to feelings of vitality, alacrity, satisfaction, accomplishment and fulfilment” (Naci and Ioannidis, 2015), in short pleasure or happiness.
Asked about the purpose of Painting-Play and La Formation, Stern has said: “When I am asked what I am giving the child, I answer: pleasure. They look at me: “Is that all?” As if pleasure was not fundamental! Pleasure is vital” (Frantz and Stern, 2018).
La Formulation is thought by Stern to be an expression of experiences that occurred during the pre-language stage of life, i.e. from the womb to around age two. Without access to La Formulation, Stern has said it is like someone has ripped out the first chapter of our life story. Expression of La Formulation may provoke a sense of satisfaction, self-actualisation and empowerment.
There is an element of epicurean kinetic pleasure when painting-players first interact with the appetising paints, plump brushes and sumptuous paper, but the more lasting pleasure would be better described as eudaimonia – a sense of flourishing or wellbeing through self-realization or “the actualization of human potentials” (Ryan and Deci, 2001, p143).
Neurobiologists refer to pleasurable experiences and enthusiasm as “fertiliser” for brain development (Hüther, 2006 in Frantz and Stern; Stern 2018).
Painting-Play encourages resilience characteristic of the growth mindset theory developed by Dweck (Dweck, 2008). There is no right or wrong way to play on the paper and every experience of Painting-Play is part of an individual learning process which empowers the painting-player to accept, explore and own their unique voice of self-expression.
Art and play are two of the human activities said to consistently produce the enjoyable and motivating state of Flow: “a state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002, p. 6).
Flow is witnessed daily in the Closlieu, because Painting-Play provides the ordered structure, attainable goal, instant validating visual feedback and the freedom from distraction required to pay attention to the task at hand – to the point at which normal perceptions of time can be altered. I have observed painters including very young children of three or four years old express shock and dismay when their Flow is interrupted at the end of the 90 minute session, saying “Already?!”
Planning for Mini C creativity and Flow in a learning environment caters for Bottery’s “Child-Centredness” code in The Morality Of The School (Bottery, 1990). This helps to illustrate the ethos of care (Warin, 2017) which pervades Le Closlieu space, thanks to the facilitator simply paying close attention, offering uncomplicated gestures of support and respect and modeling this attitude for others in the space.
Those with experience in art therapy may draw similarities to the beneficial psychological effects of Painting-Play. However, the two domains must not be confused with one another, since Painting-Play does not seek to analyse the paintings in any way. To a trained and conscientious Painting-Play facilitator, the objective, personal and unspoken observation of the emanation of La Formulation and the wholesome pleasure that self-expression derives for the players is sufficient assessment and analysis. However it may well be a perpetual challenge for some people to resist analysing the paintings or being curious about their significance.
Learning for global citizenship
My definition of global citizenship in the Closlieu is a practice of inclusion that values diversity and embraces equality for all painting-players.
The brightly lit, colourful but windowless Closlieu epitomises Loris Malaguzzi’s concept of “the environment as the third teacher” (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 2011). The paint traces which build up on the wall attest to a historically established community of practice.
Learning in the Closlieu is experiential and process-based, situated within a context where non-judgemental observation, emulation, mutual support and egalitarian participation is part of the practice. In this way, it isakin to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness practice within a sangha.
Creating an inclusive, egalitarian society can be implemented as a practice, in that one needs to regularly interact with a wide range of diverse humans in order to “learn about the true diversity of the human condition” (Ulmer, 2017). Joana Wachu, a spokesperson for disabled rights, phrased it as the concept of “wanting to see and be seen” (Wachu, 2013). Subliminal, tacit or overt notions of superiority need to be unlearned. No one is more advanced, skilled or correct in the Closlieu, despite differences in age, experience, background and perspective.
“Everybody can play in the Closlieu. Everybody is able to play. No special gift is required. Nobody is disabled or prevented. It is really a pleasure which everybody can enjoy” (Stern, 2015). For people with disabilities, “accessibility is really an issue of safety” (Franklin, 2020). In this respect, the Closlieu is philosophically a “safe” space. It is up to the facilitator to ensure that it is also physically safe and accessible.
New scientific research suggests that elements of ecosystems, particularly when left undisturbed by humans, help one another to flourish. Plants, fungi, insects and animals communicate and work together, as could humans (Wohlleben, 2016; Stern, 2018). Painting-Play engenders this spirit of cross-generational and cross-cultural alliance and solidarity. This contrasts with habitual learning settings where grouping by age, setting, streaming, comparison and competition are the norm.
Despite the formal Closlieu setting, Painting-Play shares many traits with informal learning, given that there is no explicit teaching or grouping involved. The multi-age context encourages lifelong learning, where both adults and children can be role models for one another.
Painting-Play can be likened to indigenous somatic knowing, where the entire body, mind, spirit and emotions are activated (Merriam and Kim, 2008, p76). From a bodily kinesthetic point of view, the facilitator reminds players to slow down; stand squarely facing the paints or the paper; dip the brush in the water, then the paint; mix colours with their fingertips etc (See Appendix 2). There is a sort of Closlieu “dance” as participants move between their paintings and the table-palette, respectfully making space for the other players.
Vygotsky said that we become ourselves through others (Vygostky, 1978 in Murphy, Doherty and Kerr, 2016). “Non-western” philosophies of education, such as Native American communal approaches to learning (“we are, therefore I am” (Merriam and Kim, 2008, p73) and African Ubuntugogy based on kindness and humanity (Nafukho, 2006) testify to the importance of inclusive education for the wellbeing of each individual, plus the greater goal of social harmony.
Painting-Play’s multi-age groupings and resultant conversations align it with the social constructivist model of learning. As Ramsey writes: “Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.” (Ramsey, 1998, p31)
Big C creativity (Kaufmann and Beghetto, 2009) relates to transformations in society and culture, for example the invention of the internet; coping with Covid-19; mitigating or reversing climate change; the Black Lives Matter movement or Stern’s development of Le Jeu De Peindre and his discovery of La Formulation. The Big C creativity inherent in Painting-Play aligns it with Bottery’s code for Social Reconstruction (Bottery, 1990) which, understood in its broadest sense, is the learning for peaceful co-existence and social cohesion at the core of global citizenship.
Section 5: Areas of further research
Can La Formulation be considered a language in the Vygotskian sense? Stern calls it the “mother-tongue” of the Closlieu (Stern, 2019). La Formulation could be classed as one of the “hundred languages of children” (Edwards, Gandini and Forman, 2011) (and adults for that matter), but does it overlap with Gardner’s concept of “linguistic” intelligence? Certainly Painting-Play develops participants’ spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences, but there is room for more discussion on the subject of the appropriateness of La Formulation’s labelling as a “language”.
Where is the published empirical evidence? Stern has written dozens of books and articles, given conferences and trained hundreds of practitioners from all over the world. He has been interviewed, photographed and referenced in numerous national newspapers, magazines, journals and blogs in an array of languages. In 2019, he was honoured by UNESCO and the Sorbonne (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2019a and 2019b). However, this body of work has never been shared in its fullness, apart from on screen during live training sessions. Also none has been shared in English, the language required for global recognition, apart from a portion of his website, a handful of magazine articles from the 1970s, one youtube video with English subtitles and some more recently opened Closlieu websites and blogs belonging to his trainees. The documentary “Alphabet” (Wagenhofer, 2013) and more recent short videos (Stern, 2020b) show him in the archive of paintings created in his Closlieux over generations.
The empirical evidence demonstrated by these paintings brings into question commonly accepted conjectures in prehistoric art analysis and human psychology and raises many other questions about hitherto accepted understandings (Frantz and Stern, 2018). L’Institut de Recherche en Sémiologie de l’Expression (The Semiotics of Expression Research Institute) was founded in order to share and discuss Stern’s knowledge of La Formulation with prehistorians, biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, psychologists, neuro-physiologists and others. These collaborations are still in their infancy, but his findings suggest that some of this collective knowledge may have to be reframed if not unlearned.
Stern is convinced that La Formulation is the key to connecting with our pre-language self and he may well be right, but he has not yet published enough in English or made enough allies in the wider scientific world to convince the masses.
Section 6: Conclusion
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate how Arno Stern’s Jeu De Peindre can be framed as a pedagogical approach, by providing some background and examples of how it relates to other theories of learning. It is yet to become mainstream and like all epoch-changing ideas, recognition and acceptance may take time. Parallels can clearly be drawn with more familiar paradigms such as art education, learning through play and learning for wellbeing and global citizenship. This essay attempts to build a bridge towards a broader collective understanding of the potential of Painting-Play in a lifelong journey of learning and unlearning.
Alphabet (2013) Directed by: Erwin Wagenhofer. [35mm film] Austria: Prisma Film and Germany: Rommel Film.
Baldacchino, J (2018) Art as Unlearning: Towards a Mannerist Pedagogy. Routledge.
Bottery, M. (1990) The morality of the school: The theory and practice of values in education. Cassell.
Brown, S. (2009) Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002) Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. USA:Random House.
Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
Edwards, C., Gandini, L. and Forman, G. eds. (2011) The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation. ABC-CLIO.
Erikson, E. (1950) Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
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Hüther, G. (2006) The Compassionate Brain: How empathy creates intelligence, USA: Shambhala Publications.
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Merriam, S. and Kim, Y. (2008) Non-Western perspectives on learning and knowing. New Directions For Adults And Continuing Education, no. 119, Fall 2008.
Murphy, C., Doherty, A. and Kerr, K. (2016) ” It Is through Others That We Become Ourselves”: A Study of Vygotskian Play in Russian and Irish Schools. International Research in Early Childhood Education, 7(2), pp.129-146.
Pavatex or similar woodfibre panels on the walls (in order to be able to pierce with thumbtacks)
90 gr Kraft paper pinned to the walls
18 500ml pots of plant-based non-toxic gouache paint
18 ceramic dishes with lids
18 water pots
Water bucket (for cleaning brushes which have picked up other colours of paint)
Jam jar lids (for mixing new colours)
Commode (for storing paper at a height which a small child can reach and storing the jam jar lids)
18 no. 6 brushes
36 no. 2 brushes
300 10mm thumb tacks
67 x 50 cm 120 gr offset white paper
50ml glass syringe
Self-inking date stamp
Horse shoe magnet attached to a wooden pole for easily picking up dropped thumb tacks
Pouring spout (attached to an old wine bottle for adding a layer of water to preserve paints from drying out in dishes and to fill up water pots)
Dinner/dessert knife (for adding paint to dishes from pots and mixing paint)
Step ladders, stools and steps
Rag cloths (for cleaning knife or wiping paint drips)
Short and long term storage facilities eg portfolios, racks and shelves
Appendix 2: Painting-Play rules of engagement
Arno Stern requires new painting-players of all ages to visit Le Closlieu and ensure they have a firm grasp of the concept before signing up for a year’s worth of weekly sessions (allowing for school holidays). He requires participants to commit to an entire year of weekly sessions, such is his conviction that time and repetition is required to access La Formulation. (Some participants in Arno Stern’s Closlieu have been attending since they were children and have been painting in the Closlieu for the past 50 years.)
The first session is very scaffolded practically speaking:
The painting-player takes a piece of paper and holds it up to the wall where they would like to paint.
The facilitator pins the top of the paper to the wall, while sending the painting-player to fetch two thumbtacks for the bottom edge.
The facilitator shows the painting-player how to stand squarely facing the colour on the table-palette, dip a brush first into the water and then into the paint, then take the brush to paint on the paper.
If necessary, the facilitator corrects how the brush is held, making sure the grip is comfortably in the middle of the handle for optimal control.
The facilitator reminds the painting-player to paint gently, not in a hurry, taking care of the brushes. The facilitator makes sure that any brushes replaced carelessly are noticed out loud for all to learn how important it is to take care.
Painting-players are encouraged not to paint over the thumbtacks, so must call out to the facilitator in order for him/her to remove them with his/her knife and replace them appropriately.
Drips are discouraged and caught by the facilitator’s knife or cloth upon being summoned by a painting-player needing “rescued”.
Brushes which have picked up other colours during painting are washed in a larger bucket of water before being replaced on the table-palette.
This routine is de-scaffolded over a period of time appropriate to each Painting-Player to offer support instantaneously only when needed, for example:
Providing a ladder, cushion or stool, usually without being asked, for painting-players whose paintings have progressed upwards or downwards (usually by adding papers to an initial one).
Children are especially keen on climbing the ladders however and may simply want to paint at a height.
Attaching new papers.
Mixing new paint colours on demand. Painting-players use a special technique to mix new colours, by dipping one index finger gently in a colour then the other index finger in another colour and touching and circling the fingertips to mix the colour on the ends of their index fingers.
At the end of the 90 minute session, the paintings are left to dry on the wall and are then date stamped, named, catalogued and archived by the facilitator. They must not be photographed by the painting-players or taken home, but can be revisited by the painting-player or shown by the facilitator to a friend or family member upon request, without the painting-player present.
Just found this journal entry which I had attached in a message to my parents exactly a year ago! It ended up being a pre-cursor to a series of 16 online expressive art sessions that I facilitated as part of a lockdown collaboration with KitaReka Online, set up by the social enterprise HumanKind, based in Malaysia.
14th May 2020
Last night I did one of the strangest things I have ever done in my life.
I facilitated a trial online expressive art making session. This entailed welcoming 5 adult volunteers to a Google Meet screen, checking they had art making materials to hand and setting them off on an hour of personal, intuitive creativity in whatever shape or form they desired it to take.
My role was to create a virtual space similar to the conditions in Arno Stern’s Closlieu – a place of calm, where painting-player participants paint shoulder to shoulder, not in comparison and competition, but in solidarity. Where no comment or judgement is made. Where there is a mutual feeling of moral support, but not instruction. Where the absolute uniqueness of each individual’s life experiences, strengths and challenges is celebrated and cared for.
The participants had actively chosen to carve out an hour in their busy lives to draw or paint and I had taken an hour of mine to be there with them, to accompany them; devoted to be there for them should they need a helping hand to refocus or persevere. I felt like I was actively sending them good vibes, positive energy from my flat in Singapore to their homes in Malaysia: sitting on the floor hidden away in their bedrooms; at tables in their living rooms, chatting comfortably with passing family members (with muted microphones) while they spread colours over paper.
By choice, most of their cameras were angled in such a way that I could not see what they were making. In some cases I could see little more than the top of someone’s head or the side of their face. Most of their microphones were muted for the entire 50 minutes. This was a very odd sensation for me. I was effectively watching a silent, relatively immobile group of people for almost an hour. But I treated it as a sort of mindfulness exercise and tried to be very intentional in the kind attention I paid to them as I watched, all the while projecting love. I felt very privileged to be there in fact, witnessing this very intimate act where they were willingly putting themselves in a position of vulnerability.
It struck me that an online platform for self-expression adds an extra layer of comfort, where participants can choose to share their work – or not. For introverts or those whose education or life story has conditioned them to expect teaching or criticism, this must be extremely liberating. This is something that cannot physically occur in any art studio or even in the Closlieu. Although there is an atmosphere of trust and care in the Closlieu, there is always a slight risk that someone inexperienced will comment – whether by praising or damning – and the delicate equilibrium will be toppled.
The conditions created in the Closlieu are so rare and wonderful, that I was initially dubious about being able to re-create them in a virtual space, but I am feeling energised this morning by the thought that perhaps I can.
Kuala Lumpur returned to lockdown status (MCO) a week ago and tomorrow we return to “circuit-breaker” type restrictions in Singpaore. Although of course this news initially set my heart racing with panic and uncertainty, I am hopeful that this time around we may be more resilient and may find it easier (even comforting?) to click into familiar “Phase 2” routines.
The world has changed irrevocably over the past year. Many have suffered deeply.
Even the luckiest of us have had to adapt and that can be hard – but change really IS the only constant and being open to learning and evolving can bring opportunity and sometimes even joy.
It’s been an eventful 9 months since my last post. High time to take stock of where I am with my Arts At The Heart and “No Comment” Painting-Play business in Singapore.
My gorgeous red-doored studio in the old fireman’s house on Bukit Timah Road was a very happy home for 6 months. I was allowed groups of up to 5 according to Singapore Phase 2 Covid-19 regulations and that worked perfectly for most families, small groups of friends, solo parents and kids and other mixes and matches. I was able to witness the birth of over 1000 uniquely expressive paintings and watch the bare walls fill with the signature Closlieu criss-cross of colours. Pure joy!
In November 2020, I was thrilled to start offering Painting-Play four days a week after school plus one early morning “sunrise session” as a cross-curricular activity at Dulwich College Singapore. Faced with the logistical challenge of having no specially designed Closlieu room to use, I used poetic licence to create a mobile safe space with a similar womb-like and other-worldly feeling to that of the classic window-less, kraft-papered Closlieu: eight wheeled pin-boards covered in kraft paper arranged in a circle around the table-palette, nestled between banana trees, pandan and ginger in the school roof garden. Fortunately a gazebo and electric fans give us shelter and a breeze to endure the heat and occasional shower. In lightening storms, we wheel the whole lot to the lunch hall.
At the end of December, the old fire station and all the little houses were definitively reclaimed by the Singapore Land Authority , so I moved out, taking the archived paintings with me and temporarily re-homed them…in my own home.
In January 2021, I started substitute teaching at Dulwich College Singapore in Early Years and Junior School, which kept me busy while I reassessed the rental situation and realised just how lucky I’d been to have my first Closlieu in such a characterful and affordable little red house!
In February, after Phase 3 was announced, I was allowed to welcome up to 8 people at a time to the school roof garden Closlieu. The school leadership recognised the benefits of Painting-Play and helped me to be able to offer places to staff for free as part of their staff wellbeing programme.Unfortunately due to Covid, we were not allowed to include Early Years in the CCA programme, but I was delighted to have eclectic multi-age groups including Year 3s, 4s, 5s, 6s and 7s (aged around 7-12), Year 12 (aged around 17) and staff.
April saw the grand opening of my long awaited private studio. Where in the densely packed metropolis of Singapore had I found an overlooked space? A spacious room with a view that had previously been reserved for VIP visitors to my local area?? My own guest room after all! The silver lining of having no family and friends to visit us here is that our unused guest room makes the perfect Closlieu.
Now here we are in May 2021. Weeks of worries over being able to renew my work permit in Singapore were put to rest last week. I would be allowed to stay until 2024 if I wanted to! We have just wished our Muslim friends a Happy Eid and heard today that Singapore is moving backwards towards circuit-breaker-like rules on Sunday 16th May: No social gatherings of more than two; working from home wherever possible… No news about schools and CCAs yet. Suspense…
However, I take heart that back in May and June of 2020, I had teamed up with Pam Guneratnam at KitaReka in Kuala Lumpur to offer online expressive art facilitation. I am hopeful that this model could be a way to continue creating safe spaces for non-judgemental painting and drawing – for the benefit of my current clients and beyond.
It’s clear that every increase in cases and subsequent tightening of Covid regulations provokes a spike in anxiety in people of all ages. Arts At The Heart and “No Comment” is a meaningful part of the tool kit we all need for resilience, stress-management and hope in these testing times.
In 7 months time, our family will be returning to Switzerland. One of the most pressing items on my To Do list is to find the perfect person to adopt my baby business and help it grow into the confident grown-up business it deserves to be.
I am already interviewing some highly skilled, experienced and passionate candidates and feeling optimistic that Painting-Play has a great future ahead in Singapore – one that I will continue to support in every way I can.
What a joy it has been to serve these wonderful people of all ages, all walks of life in the “No Comment” Closlieu. For the majority of them it was their first time trying Painting-Play, but they took to it like ducks to water. Since it’s a brand new and quite alien concept in Singapore, I’ve been hosting “discovery” sessions. I know Arno might not approve of a Closlieu taking bookings for less than an entire year(!), but I hope he would understand that in the context of Singapore this really is a necessity. Lots of these one-time sessions are leading to longer-term bookings of 5-7 weeks… Baby steps headed in the right direction!
Against all Covid-19-related odds, “No Comment” Painting-Play studio opened on 14th July 2020 – the first and only Closlieu in Singapore!
I’m allowed to welcome 5 people at a time and I leave an hour between each group to deep clean and disinfect (and archive the paintings). It’s been such a blast already, more than 70 painting-players and almost 400 paintings later! Phew!
I’ve just seen that it was Arno’s 96th birthday on Tuesday. In this photo that his son André took, there was a row of colourful candles inspired by one of his wonderful inventions: the table-palette. Such a perfect way to celebrate the long and vibrant life of this pioneering man! Because Arno has devoted more than 70 of his 96 years to the development of “le jeu de peindre”, which requires a “closlieu” room with its “table-palette” nucleus of 18 delectable colours in order for “la formulation” – the universal visual “mother-tongue” – to arise in the participants. Much like the flames on his candles, the paint colours shine a light on this neglected and endangered language. When you bring people of all ages around the table-palette, just as when you bring families and friends around a regular table to share a meal together, it strengthens a bond of trust in humanity, solidarity, of shared experience, creating memories and a brighter, more hopeful future.
Thank you once again, Arno, for bringing Painting Play into our lives! Here’s to many more happy birthdays ahead!
I’ve just watched and re-watched a powerful video of the former dean of Stanford University, writer and speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims (who by the way is bi-racial African-American and white British, living in the US) being interviewed by Sir Ken Robinson’s daughter Kate (who by the way is white British-French and living in the UK).
Until the 25th May 2020, when George Floyd’s brutal and senseless murder by a US policeman rocked the world, we had spent several months mainly concerned with managing Covid-19 pandemic-related stresses, precarity and uncertainty. Robinson and Lythcott-Haims talk about urgent lessons in anti-racist parenting and educating today in this new George Floyd era. It has struck me, as it did Kate, that we may now be trying to juggle a double dose of anxiety and confusion. It’s important to face this head on as we continue trying to raise happy, courageous, confident, principled children.
Kate first asks Julie: How can I be a parent who does not simply expect that by being non-racist I will raise a non-racist child, but rather as my child’s biggest role model, sincerely embody the change I wish to see in the world, starting at home?
Julie preceeds her reply with the horrifyingly gentle reminder: “Let us not presume everybody listening is white”. Boom! I was caught out.
She goes on to remind us that black parents in the US simply don’t have the luxury of deciding whether to talk about racism with their young children. It’s literally a matter of survival. As a child of 3 or 4 years old, she learned about racism “from the looks of strangers on the street”. Parents of children of colour have a more challenging, yet all the more important task to ensure that their children feel:
You are unconditionally loved.
You are precious.
You are worthy of kindness and love and dignity.
At the same time, parents of children of colour have to prepare their babies for a world where some people will presume they are criminals, violent, lazy or uncivilised, just because of their skin colour or features.
Young children noticesameness and difference and they notice their parents’ behaviour. So rather than rushing an embarrassingly direct toddler out of the supermarket when he or she loudly observes racial difference, we can diffuse a potentially awkward situation with gentle kindness and model some great parenting for onlookers, whilst exploiting the opportunity to teach our child about the wonder and joy of diversity.
Julie: “There is nothing wrong with difference. In fact our remarkable differences as a human species are beautiful and real and valid. Our task is to ensure that our children do not attach value labels, value judgements to those differences.”
This pulled me straight back with whiplash to my “closlieu” alternative art studio dream, where we paint-play together in our diversity and solidarity, where no value judgements are made and we celebrate each individual’s uniqueness.
Kate wonders: “Where does racism come from?”
Julie: “It comes from attitudes, beliefs, ignorance, lack of exposure to people who are different or very biased exposure to people who are different. As parents, we need to examine our own assumptions and presumptions, actions, behaviours, reactions. Our kids are listening to every word we say and they are watching everything we do. So we as parents have to ask ourselves, “Do I love black people?” “Do I see black people as being equally human to me?”
She continues: “Coming to you from America, where we dehumanise black folk, because we do not see black folk as equally human. They enslaved us because they didn’t think we were human – and I know I’m speaking to my former colonialist empire here (Kate is British). They ripped us from the arms of our parents and children on the auction block as we cried and our cries were met with no mercy, because they did not see our family bonds as rising to the level of their family bonds.”
As a white person, some of the questions I need to confront are the following: Do I see different coloured people as equally human? Or do I see stereotypes? Do I have friends of different races? Do I actively seek out places, organisations, opportunities to connect with people who are different from me? If the answer is no, then there is a message here which is not entirely anti-racist, which I am tacitly and implicitly transmitting to my children.
Reading edifying books, watching critical documentaries, having those fundamental conversations, all this is great, but I must also be brave enough to ask, “why have I chosen to live a life where I am usually surrounded by white people?” I need to continue to be curious about places where I might have blind spots and actively connect with people of all colours, locals, migrant workers, refugees, whatever the dynamic is where I live.
These are just a few of the salient and sobering points Julie Lythcott-Haims brought up in the interview. I urge you to listen for yourselves here:
Stay safe, stay strong. #blacklivesmatter
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André Stern talks and writes about the Ecology Of Childhood and how, if we are to protect the future of humanity, we need to to start thinking about protecting and nurturing childhood. The limitless potential of a natural, intuitive child is literally our only hope – and they are an endangered species! The human race will not survive without allowing children to flourish.
The visual language that occurs in the closlieu – it’s mother tongue, “the formulation“, is an endangered language too. When I read George Monbiot’s excellent article and saw the painting by his daughter in The Guardian this morning, I was thrilled by his insightful perspective and struck dumbfounded by the similarity it bore to some of the infinitely expansive and expressive paintings that have emanated from other children (aged 3 to 103) when they are allowed to create without judgement, without competition, without comparison to others.
When life and learning is about the process instead of output and the bottom line, it becomes about attitudes. When we stop competing and comparing ourselves to others, we remember we actually are all in this together and the ones who survive our crisis will be the ones who connect and who choose love and wonder instead of fear.
The story of Italy’s now world famous Reggio Emilia city-run nurseries and primary schools is fascinating and unique, but their award-winning holistic approach to early years education is inspiring more and more schools throughout the world to notice, respect and nurture the multitude (“and a hundred, hundred, hundred more”) ways a child interacts with and makes sense of the world.
Loris Malaguzzi, founder and first director of the Reggio Emilia municipal early years program from it’s conception in 1945 to his death in 1994, wrote the following poem as a powerful manifesto of the values embodied by the Reggio Emilia approach. I love its defiant defence of children’s plethora of ways of knowing and understanding and the unflattering light it shines on the obtuse dualism of grown up wisdom: work versus play; reality versus fantasy; science versus imagination; sky versus earth and reason versus dreams… Why must one preclude the other? Why should they even be considered separate phenomena?? The text in the photo is miniscule, so I’ve written it out fully below for you to enjoy.
No Way. The Hundred Is There.
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.
A hundred, always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
a hundred worlds
The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred, hundred, hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and Christmas.
They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.
They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
that do not belong together.
And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.
- Loris Malaguzzi
(Original Italian version translated by Lella Gandini)
Taken from pages 2 and 3
in Edwards C., Gandini L. and Forman G. (2012)
The Hundred Languages of Children - The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation ,
published by Praeger