Building blocks


Dear Artist,

When Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget was marking intelligence tests at a school for boys in Paris, he noticed that younger children consistently gave wrong answers to all the same questions. Piaget concluded that children of a certain age were simply not yet ready for these particular questions, having not yet developed cognitive abilities in these areas. It was 1921 and Piaget returned to Switzerland to propose a global theory of cognitive developmental stages — laying out age periods and their patterns — basically showing how knowledge is built.


“Space-force Construction” 1921
oil painting by
Lyubov Popova (1889-1924)

By 1934, Piaget was serving as the Director of the International Bureau of Education. He proposed that children of all ages mostly required long, uninterrupted periods of play and exploration in order to learn. His theories, known as Constructivist philosophies of education, asserted that knowledge was acquired by having self-earned tools to invent, find new solutions and make discoveries. “Intelligence,” said Piaget, “is what you use when you don’t know what to do.”




“Painterly Architectonic” 1918
oil painting
by Lyubov Popova


In art, the term “constructivist” is an aesthetic and way of working that focuses on materials and materiality. Think of the architects of the Bauhaus and De Stijl and the graphic collagists of the Russian Revolution. Think of their blocky forms and the intentional spotlighting of their materials and craft. So tied to the factual physicality of work and to truthfully describing all the elements that made up a design, the members at the Institute of Artistic Culture in 1920s Moscow even deposed their first Chairman. They felt Wassily Kandinsky was too “woo woo” for their new group — his paintings leaked hints of mysticism.

Finally, the First Working Group of Constructivists defined their new movement as the combination of two terms: faktura — the particular material properties of an object — and tektonika — its spatial presence. Not long after, Jean Piaget pinpointed the principle goal of education: “Creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”


“Still Life with Tray” 1915
oil painting by Lyubov Popova



PS: “Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.” (Jean Piaget)

“Play is the work of childhood.” (Jean Piaget)

Esoterica: There’s no hiding in play — it reveals, firsthand, the truth of how things work. Piaget put it this way: “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” Not until the 1960s would Piaget’s theories of play and discovery really take off. After teaching at the Universities of Geneva and Paris, Piaget was invited in 1964 to Cornell and Berkeley to share his designs for curriculum development. “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself,” he said. “On the other hand, that which we allow him to discover for himself will remain with him visible for the rest of his life.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” (Jean Piaget)




  1. great to read, sara. I have long thought parents today meddle too much with their children. There has to be planned activities stuffed into almost every hour of every day. And, they think it proves that they are good and evolved parents. Piaget was right, indeed.

    • Penelope Slade on

      I totally agree, and its disgusting to watch. And, these kids coming up don’t seem to know how to play like climbing trees like I did – my mother didn’t know where I was half the time but it wasn’t a problem – we lived in the country in California with lots of places to explore with my friends and my dog, Moosey. In the 1950’s we didn’t have technology to interfere with real play of running, hiking, biking and climbing trees. My friend, 3 years older, taught me how to read before kindergarten. Playing outside didn’t stymie my desire to read. I realize how blessed this country life was – and now in retirement I ran to the country again…

      • Peter McLeod on

        I believe the article is discussing the need for play for artists to explore new and inventive things, not a condemnation of current parenting practices or the the capabilities of future generations.

    • Louanne Headrick on

      You bet! Looking for the spiritual in art somehow involves the soul and the state of wonder.

  2. Charles Eisener on

    Unfortunately, parents today are in a much more controlled environment. Things we did while I was growing up, including the exploration of nearby crags and cliffs, would today precipitate a visit from law enforcement and/or child protective services. In trying to protect, we have created a world with limited risks and equally limited opportunity for individual thought and physical activity. None of us ever were injured or harmed other than a few scratches once in a while, but the memories and experiences were priceless, allowing our young imaginations to soar.

    Experience is a much better teacher than a computer monitor or TV screen, regardless of the quality of the program. You do not learn to ride a bike by watching somebody else do it, and you do not learn to think by reading a book or watching a screen. But the door to experience and exploration only opens when the spirit is allowed to soar – too many restrictions serve only to clip one’s wings before we can ever learn to fly.

  3. This is very fresh and interesting to me because I have watched my grandson growing and learning from his infancy. He went to a Montesorri preschool and has a very different and independent thought and behavior process. He has had some problems adjusting to grade school because he solves his problems without asking for permission to do something about them. He left the schoolyard to get a ball that went over the fence and was punished when he returned because children were not allowed to leave the fenced area. These incidents happen often seemingly. But frankly the atmosphere in his school is much more liberal and accepting and learning-oriented than what I experienced over 50 years ago.

  4. Sheri-Lee Langlois on

    1975-76 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University, Faculty of Education, prevailing educational philosophy : Jean Piaget and his developmental ladder! A wonderful time to be working on a Bachelor of Education. With far less emphasis on testing everything, my Grade 10 students learned about Canadian Government by taking roles & acting out a day in their own House of Commons with their own issues to debate – wow, what fun! I remember it thoroughly 38 years later & I bet those “kids” remember what a Speaker of the House does in marvellous detail. Expecting these kids to memorize pages of charts & words in their textbooks, listening to me lecture about the institutions that govern us would have been a total waste of time! They did well on their final exams too! This is how I interact with my little granddaughter and she just added faces, arms & legs to her people paintings this week, with individual teeth too, “so they can eat”! Just lovely.

  5. All of this, get out and play, sounds fine…BUT…either there is more news about creepy slime in our society that will not leave children alone…or, as I suspect, there are more of them. I was generally free to play as a kid. Now my great grandchildren are in a world of much more social ugliness… and add to that their participation in the antisocial-digital blah blah…and how do we get around all of that?

  6. Off the point sorry but it always makes me crabby that Piaget gets all the credit for Maria Montessori’s discovery of what she called “sensitive periods” when children spontaneously discover and work on a particular “problem”….like sorting like objects, for example…until they have absorbed whatever information that activity contains, and they move on…

  7. So- one of my fave artists- Kandinsky- got woo-wooed out of his chairmanship (of the Institute of Artistic Culture???) because his paintings “leaked hints of mysticism”. All of my work is constructivist. And all of my work SCREAMS Mysticism. Funny. Especially since I can explain both its mystical qualities AND the personal mystical experience I’m having with Creative SOURCE. woo woo woo woo woo… anything less is boring.

  8. So true! I thank my parents for allowing me to be a “free range” kid! They were busy figuring out their own lives during times of political conflict.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

Stalking Caribou With a Paintbrush
August 25, 2018 to August 31, 2018


Capture on canvas the vibrant autumn reds, mauves, greens and golds of the Arctic tundra. Distractions: Caribou migrating south from their summer feeding grounds to their winter shelter; magical nightly displays of northern lights; world-class fishing for Arctic char or grayling; hiking or boat trips to see ancient Inuit sites; or, after an excellent dinner, hear of the exploits of the owners during their adventures to the North & South Poles. An experience like no other!

Not a workshop but rather a group paint out under the guidance of professional oil painter and textile designer Mette Baker ( Mette has been painting at Arctic Haven, a wilderness lodge in the southwest corner of Nunavut, for the past two years. Her husband, former Canadian Ambassador and consultant Brian Baker, has been leading groups to Greenland and Northern Canada for many years.

For more details about Arctic Haven, see website:

For information about the trip generally, contact Brian Through
oil 12 x 16 inches

Featured Artist

Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.