Therapy and Place

When I began my research into residential child care at Edinburgh University in 1969 one of the pioneers whose work I discovered and cherished was Barbara Dockar-Drysdale. The place forever associated with her name is the Mulberry Bush School, Standlake, west of Oxford. For some reason, although I gone to see (and indeed stay in) many residential establishments during the course of the research and from that time on, I had never visited this unique place until a day or so ago.

As I walked around on an autumnal Friday afternoon it became possible to set the writings and practice of “Pip” Dockar-Drysdale in context. Rather than attempt an overall description of the five houses, the educational centre, and the land on which they are situated, my intention here is to compare and contrast it to Mill Grove, where Ruth and I live and seek to care for children and families. My primary focus is the relationship between therapy and place.

I was shown round by the head of the school and quickly noticed that he tended to talk about individual children (not by name of course) and their recent experiences. There were few generalisations or statistics because the focus of the community was on understanding and coming alongside boys and girls (between the ages of 5 and 13 years) who had experienced serious emotional traumas. Listening to them revealed that each one carried unique personal burdens, bore specific psychological scars, and had individual life stories. At other establishments I have been told of bed-occupancy rates, of categories and trends, of methods and regimes, but here the undeniable priority was the experience of each child.

This reminded me of the way in which my replies to questions about Mill Grove inevitably turn to the passing on of the stories, words, and actions of particular children. It is not so much a conscious choice or strategy as a habit of the heart, a revealing what is of paramount importance for us. And not surprisingly I am always drawn to the writings of therapists who dwell on the stories and experiences of those they are seeking to help, rather than on those for whom method and strategies predominate. Needless to say, this is not to imply that Mulberry Bush and Mill Grove are devoid of methods and strategies: it is to underline the way in which everything is intended to be at the service of the well-being of individual children.

 Aerial View of Mill Grove

Aerial View of Mill Grove

The prime resources at Mulberry Bush are not the knowledge of psycho-dynamic theories and methods (though these can be and often have been spelt out), but the relationships between the adults and the children. The adult offers herself in relationship, and it is through listening, empathising and creative imagination that she comes to understand and even to share, when invited, aspects of the story and experiences of the child. There is no blueprint for such a relationship (although there are of course carefully thought out contours and boundaries) because each relationship is personal and therefore distinctive. There is something of the nature of a therapeutic alliance in such relationships, as well as the recognition of the significance of the transitional space of which D.W. Winnicott wrote with such insight.

All the time I was becoming aware of the importance of the physical environment inside and out, and the attention to detail. The houses are homely, but their interiors and gardens have been sensitively constructed. Furnishings, toys, play areas (including safe space for fires in the gardens) are all located and chosen with much wisdom and knowledge. The prevailing idea is that it should be possible for children to play, to lark around, to be and to reflect without then need for adults to warn them continually of risks and dangers. A golden retriever, a wooden horse, a climbing wall, and cuddly toys and dressing-up clothes caught my attention.

Although there is a sense of permanence and reliability about the place, adaptation is the norm at Mulberry Bush. It still has the feel of a place situated on a farm, and there are reminders of times past, such as the quadrangle, courtyard, and the Cotswold stone, but over the decades there have been innumerable modifications of buildings, gardens and rooms. And this reminded me that when I once asked my father many years ago what skill he valued most among adults at Mill Grove he ventured “furniture moving”. When I said that I was serious in raising the question he replied that his reply was meant to be serious too.

Over time I came to see that he was in essence referring to the need to modify and adapt the life-space as new children arrived, or as some grew up, and the unexpected and unpredicted happened. A true welcome of a child will always involve a degree of change on the part of the people and place doing the welcoming. It is not a purpose- built environment: neither the farm that the Bush now occupies, nor the Victorian houses that comprise Mill Grove were built with the idea of a therapeutic community in mind. Neither is it the result of knocking the place down and starting again. Rather it is a more organic process: a constant dialectic between the individuals and their environment that resembles the way trees or plants adapt to changing seasons, prevailing winds or particular local events. So the place does not resemble a factory or production line: the children have affected the place in which they live, directly and indirectly.

It is probably obvious from what has been written so far that play is valued as one of the most important activities of a child’s life, of their learning, and of their healing. This will include formal games and informal play, but it also characterises the nature of the place. Play does not merely serve to fill the spaces between purposeful activities, but is at the heart of relationships and learning. There is much trial and error, experimentation in order to understand what feels comfortable and what works. It is like the very best scientific investigation: a process always open to the creative imagination, the stupid question, and the spontaneous discovery (whether under the apple tree, as in the case of Isaac Newton, or in the bath, as with Archimedes).

Just as Mill Grove has a base in North Wales where play is the name of the game, so the Bush has an area in the woods where children go to enjoy themselves in the outdoor world. But play is not restricted to such places: it is a way of life.

It was not long before it had become apparent that the boundaries of the whole place had been very carefully conceived. Whether between houses, between the houses and the education centre, between indoors and outdoors, between the place and the local community, between the space of adults and the space of children, as well as shared space. This was not a matter of notices, or of locked doors (although there were some), but of a thoughtful and reflective awareness of appropriate space, spaces and room. If a community is to be therapeutic then it is never a case of putting everyone together in an ill-defined space, hoping that this will work wonders! Rather the space is conceived and shaped with a careful balance between safety and risk management on one hand, and opportunities for personal expression and spontaneity on the other.

In trying to find a way of bringing this little and eclectic collection of reflections together, I suggest that it might be worth thinking of the place in terms of an ecology of therapy. This may well do justice to the way in which all the different elements connect with each other, and are seen as part of a whole, inter-connected process and dynamic system. The place has so many different constituent parts, and there are so many layers and levels that there is always a sense of mystery and wonder because so much is unknown, unknowable and indescribable. It is in a word, an open-ended system that welcomes diversity, surprise and paradox.

I did not meet any of the children on this visit (I think that they had mostly gone home for this particular weekend) and therefore did not witness relationships, lessons, sessions, meals or any of the components of daily life at the school. So this reflection is not intended to be a summary of the whole life and dynamics of the place. But it is enough to convince me that there was an element of coming home during this brief visit. Yes there was the new mural in the courtyard depicting aspects of the story: of the Dockar-Drysdales and their car, of the tractor, and life in the countryside. Clearly the place exemplified the principles of the approach of the founder to children who were hurting and confused emotionally. But it was more than this. I felt as if some of the very same DNA, the lifeblood that flows through the veins of Mill Grove were also detectable here.

Aerial View of The Mulberry Bush 

Aerial View of The Mulberry Bush

There are many forms of therapy in practice around the world, but is there perhaps an essential core that can be traced through them all? If so, perhaps what I have been describing might allude to some aspects of this core. There is an appreciation of the whole of a child’s story and life, of the rhythms of everyday life, of the seasons, and the potential of the natural world to provide a context for shared understanding and healing.

And where people have been committed to such therapy the place becomes significant over time: you couldn’t simply transfer or transplant Mulberry Bush or Mill Grove, no more than you can simply move a child from one setting to another without the risk of inestimable harm and loss. There must be a secure attachment between therapy, child and place.

P.S. Having thought I had concluded this brief piece and just before I sent if off for publication, a friend then commented that when he worked for the Richmond Fellowship this used to be called “milieu therapy”. He was right of course and perhaps Elly Jansen and her colleagues were among those like Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, who helped me to see the indissoluble connection between the two.

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