The edge of chaos in childcare: why ‘the child’s best interests’ aren’t ‘good-enough’

Amazingly they published the letter, almost in full, with just deft edits for length that didn’t damage my flow.

extracts from Children Now magazine, full article at:

“Back Page: Social Claire – Let’s try to foster some stability
14 June 2006

“…I have been working with a young man who
has had 25 moves over five years…

…He has been labelled “unfosterable”…

…He is settled in school, has friends…no one is
listening to him…

“He’s got a bad reputation now, we’re lucky if we can find
anyone to take him,” said the head of fostering. “He’s brought this on

Whatever happened to a child-centred approach?…”

(Quoted here under the ‘fair use’ terms of copyright, correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll remove the extracts, please don’t sue me, Haymarket)

To which I reply:

Dear Editor

to: letters page re: ‘ Claire is fuming over services that ignore a child-centred approach.’

To which I say: When both sides are ‘true’ what should WE do?

Reading of Claire’s frustration allowed me to say the following, by way of explanation of my hopefully controversial view that a child-centred approach can be misguided, confusing, unhelpful and counterproductive in many contexts, just as much as a defensive institution focussed one.

InClaire’s example, unless both sides listen a bit more and interact a lot more they won’t find the wealth of possible solutions which are waiting for them in the middle. ‘More than one thing can be true at once’ as I say to my students, when they think that are taking opposing sides. This isn’t just a plea to ‘play nicely’, by the way. I think its a bit more complex than that, although that would be a start.

Allow me to explain. In 2002 I was doing a joint piece of work with Wendy Russell, another play theorist, in which we trying to refocus the unhelpful debate on safety v. freedom in playwork into a more useful space. So we created a continuum/taxonomy ( based on my earlier management work on the applications of complexity thinking) which went from ‘ordered playwork’ which is too safety-focussed, so it doesn’t meet children’s developmental needs, through to ‘chaotic playwork’ which is too freedom-focussed so it doesn’t meet children’s developmental needs either. Inspired as we both were, by Gordon Sturrock’s Psycholudics approach, I coined the term ‘ludocentric’ as a descriptor of the middle zone that we should be aiming to inhabit, steering a course between the Scylla of over-regimented childcare and the Charybdis of out-of-control kids charging about so ‘freely’ that they hurt themselves and others. (I’m not going to say ‘as in bad Adventure playgrounds in the 70s’ because I refuse to pander to that overblown stereotypical media myth.) Somewhere in the middle lives ‘ludocentric playwork’ where the focus is on enabling ‘the playful child’, doing the balancing act between too much control and too much risk. This notion has achieved some degree of success in influencing the thinking of playworkers, and crucially in supporting their professional confidence in the appropriateness of their finely judged, reflective and nuanced approach to work with children in the face of the Elfansafety clipboard carriers, who sometimes fail to grasp the subtleties of good playwork.

So, to the point: I think we can map Claire’s issue, which is one horn of a dilemma, onto an amended version this continuum quite easily. The endpoints could be labelled ‘organisational needs’ v. ‘children’s needs’. In Claire’s context, I suspect Roger Morgan is attempting to redress the balance somewhat in favour of the child, as is Claire herself. Very laudable. It’s what I did, back when I was a face-worker. And – not but, AND, it doesn’t necessarily produce a better outcome for the child. Notice I say ‘better’ not ‘best’. Voltaire said ‘The best is the enemy of the good’ which I use to mean that an obsession with the best can block us achieving Winnicott’s ‘good enough’.

A final point: this isn’t just about a middle way. It’s about an interactional approach that focusses on what emerges INBETWEEN. The ‘good enough’ solution will emerge when the 2 perspectives and their proponents interact with each other in open dialogue rather than position-defending debate.

When both sides are ‘true’ what should WE do?

Best wishes
Arthur Battram
Management consultant and Play theorist


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