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Thinking about the Life Space

Henry Maier

The concept of "life-space" will be familiar to some readers, strange to others, but it is crucial to an understanding of writing on residential work. It has developed from the psychology of Kurt Lewin, who attempted to explore the psychological significance of physical space and behaviour as it occurs within physical and spatial boundaries. This idea was developed in the 1940’s by the American psychiatrist, Fritz Redl, who, while working with severely disturbed children, observed that many kinds of problematical behaviour (temper tantrums, stealing, fighting, etc.) could be dealt with more effectively by "on the spot handling of an interview-like type" than the classical casework or psychiatric interview. In the United States ‘life-space treatment’ has come to be defined as a mode of intervention, analagous to casework, psychotherapy, group work, etc., that makes planned and purposeful use of daily events and happenings to bring about growth and development and changes in behaviour and functioning.

We use the term "life-space" in a more general sense to describe the whole social emotional, physical organizational and environmental context in which residential life takes place. It has three aspects, physical, social and organisational.

  1. Physical Space. This, we are all used to as a concept. We talk of "room to move", "oceans of space", "a cramped room or house" and so on. The physical space within which one lives and moves has a very great effect on a person’s life. In residential care we are operating by definition in settings where this physical space is a very important factor is everything that occurs or is planned.
  2. Social Space. It is obvious when you think of it that every relationship may encourage people to grow and develop, or conversely, it may so restrict and threaten that an individual finds it easier to "retire into a shell". In periods of each day, week or year – the nature and quality of all their relationships is going to be a key factor in whether they are happy, fulfilled and developing, or depressed, thwarted and discouraged. This will be true whether the relationships are between staff, staff and residents or between the residents themselves.
  3. Organisational. The third aspect of life-space so important in residential settings concerns the patterns of daily living: how daily events, chores, meetings are organised. All these arrangements will again affect the individual and group experience of life. Routines can be creative and warm or destructive and impersonal.

All three elements, physical, social and organizational, combine to make up a person’s life-space. In ordinary life in modern cities, a person tends to move about from place to place, be involved with different people in a range of different settings at work, home and leisure, and have membership of numerous organisations. In residential care the life space is much more clearly centred on one place – at least for many residents. The establishment can often become a little universe of personal experience for periods of time ranging from weeks to years. In this universe the elements mentioned react one with another like mass, energy and time in Einstein’s great equation for the physical universe. (We haven’t yet worked out a mathematical formulation for our components however!)

Every policy or decision, every belief, contact with others, will affect the nature and quality of this life-space. In residential care, a living environment is actually being created together by residential staff. That is why it is so important to get everything focussed on the residential experience and the tasks in creating the life-space.

From: Maier, H. W. (1981) Essential Components in Care and Treatment Environments for Children, Chapter 2 in Ainsworth, F. and Fulcher, L.C. (Eds.) Group Care for Children: Concepts and Issues. London and New York, Tavistock Publications.

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