Psychology & Psychotherapy

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A short biography of Margaret Lowenfeld and the Margaret Lowenfeld Trust

Dr Margaret Lowenfeld, 1890–1973

Dr Margaret Lowenfeld was a paediatrician who became a pioneer of child psychology and psychotherapy. Her interest in how children grow and develop and think began when, recently qualified as a doctor, she was involved in relief-work in her ancestral Poland after the First World War and wondered what enabled some children to survive and flourish despite their traumatic experiences. Early in her career she engaged in medical research (in childhood rheumatism and in breast-feeding) and she retained a strong belief in the need for research and evaluation in whatever field she was engaged.

Her outstanding contributions sprang from her recognition that play is an important activity in children’s development and that language is often an unsatisfactory medium for children to express their experiences. She consequently invented non-verbal techniques that enabled them to convey their thoughts and feelings without resort to words. The Lowenfeld World Technique uses trays filled with sand and collections of toy animals, people, vehicles, buildings, etc. These miniature representations of objects from their everyday lives and imaginings enable children to portray their inner worlds. Lowenfeld Mosaics uses differently shaped and coloured tiles to produce a powerful diagnostic and therapeutic instrument; they have also proved useful in comparative studies of children from different cultures. Though most of her work was with emotionally disturbed children she also understood very well how ordinary children learn; she devised Lowenfeld Poleidoblocs, still widely used in primary schools in Britain, to teach young children fundamental mathematical principles.

Underpinning these inventions are Lowenfeld’s own distinct original theories about the driving forces of children’s behaviour. These were not deduced from adults’ memories of childhood recovered in psychoanalytic sessions, but were derived from her direct observations of children themselves and from their actions as much as their words, for as she said, ‘Children think with their hands’, that is to say, from their sensorial experiences. She was always more interested in discovering and redirecting a child’s strengths rather than diagnosing his weaknesses or pathology.

In the late 1920s Dr Lowenfeld established one of the first child guidance clinics in Britain in Notting Hill, London. This she developed into the Institute of Child Psychology which trained child psychotherapists in her theories and techniques while continuing to be the local child guidance centre funded eventually by the National Health Service; this gave its students a unique experience of the practicalities of the child guidance field during their training. Although the Institute closed a few years after her death, ICP-trained child psychotherapists consequently have until quite recently formed a significant element in the NHS.

The whole of the work of the ICP was designed with a view to future research. The large numbers of children treated and Lowenfeld’s method of corporate sessions, in which several children each with their own therapist would simultaneously use the playrooms where their products (sandtray worlds, mosaics, etc.) would be carefully recorded, provided her with an accumulation of recorded cases providing evidence and material for research. Her Institute also became the centre of a worldwide network of research using her non-verbal techniques in social anthropology and cross-cultural studies.

On her death, the Dr Margaret Lowenfeld Trust was set up to continue and develop her work as far as its limited resources would permit.

The work of the Dr Margaret Lowenfeld Trust

Keeping Lowenfeld’s work accessible

The Trust initially put some of its resources into ensuring that Dr Lowenfeld’s books remain in print and that the equipment needed to practise her techniques is available. In the 1980s the Trust funded a Lowenfeld Research Fellow at Cambridge University, one outcome of which was the publication of Lowenfeld’s Selected Papers with a critical biographical introduction by the Research Fellow, Dr Cathy Urwin.

The Library and Archives of the Institute of Child Psychology are housed with Trust support in Professor Martin Richard’s Centre for Family Research at Cambridge. They are due to be transferred to the Wellcome Trust Library on thed History of Medicine in the spring of 2005.

Ensuring the supply of Lowenfeld-trained professionals

Because Lowenfeld’s theories and treatment methods are significantly different from those of Freud, Adler, Jung, or Klein, they are ignored by the existing training centres for child psychotherapists, and where her techniques (such as sandtrays) are used her contribution is often unacknowledged. So the Trust was not able to look to them for help in securing the continued availability of professionals trained to use Lowenfeld techniques.

Once again Cambridge University provided a home. When the new Department of Developmental Psychiatry was established under Professor Ian Goodyer under the same roof as a centre for child and adolescent care, the Trust underwrote the cost of providing a Lowenfeld Seminar Room fully equipped with sandtrays, toys, and Mosaic sets.
More importantly, the Trust committed its limited capital resources to funding a series of one-year in-service training courses to equip practising professionals with Lowenfeld techniques. A Lowenfeld-trained child psychotherapist with 25 years’ experience was invited to become a part-time teaching fellow in Professor Goodyer’s Department and to run the courses. They demonstrated that a wide range of professionals who work with children (child psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, paediatric occupational therapists, social workers, mental health nurses, speech and language therapists, hospital play specialists, to name only some) find Lowenfeld’s methods and techniques extremely useful and effective additions to their armoury of skills. Their success pointed to the need for an accredited and validated course that would satisfy the registration requirements of the United Kingdom Council on Psychotherapy.

Accordingly the courses have been developed into a four-year part-time MSc in Lowenfeld Projective Play Therapy run jointly by the Trust and Middlesex University. The first two years, primarily devoted to Lowenfeld theory and clinical practice, are taught in Cambridge. The final two years, taught at Middlesex University, include the wider theoretical and research aspects and explore the growing apparent concordance between Lowenfeld’s own original theories and the findings of contemporary neuroscience. The first graduates from this course are in their final year.

Continuing Lowenfeld’s concern for research

During Lowenfeld’s life a number of anthropologists, such as Margaret Mead, Theodora Abel, and Rhoda Metraux, were enthusiastic about the potential of her Mosaic Test as a tool of cross-cultural research and published a number of studies using it. In recent years the Trust supported the costs for a study of the Mosaic responses of children of Chinese descent acculturated to varying degrees into Western societies, from children of families living in mainland China, through first generation immigrant families in London, to second and third generation families in San Francisco.

The Trust has been supporting research at Homerton Teacher Training College, Cambridge, to study and improve the way in which Lowenfeld Poleidoblocs are used in primary schools to teach basic mathematical concepts. A training video for teachers and schools on the use of Poleidoblocs is one outcome in addition to numerous academic and professional journal papers. The Trust also obtained funding to develop an interactive CD/ROM which widens the range of potential audiences, e.g. parents, for the fruits of Homerton’s researches.

Recognition of Lowenfeld’s contribution to child psychology

The Trust has been very pleased to collaborate with and contribute to the Science Museum’s first ever permanent exhibit concerned with the science of psychology. Of three display cabinets in the History of Medicine section, one is devoted to Lowenfeld’s inventions. Moreover, she figured substantially in a major Science Museum special exhibition in 2001 to celebrate the Centenary of the British Psychological Society.

Further information about the Dr Margaret Lowenfeldt Trust’s activities can be found on their website