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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Listening to Children – ‘Special Times’

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

Dr Rachel Pinney

When I was training at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in the 1980s, I became friends with a fellow student, Meg Robinson, who was also training in a method of child psychotherapy pioneered by an eccentric doctor, Rachel Pinney, in north London. Meg suggested I read a book called Dibs – In Search of Self by Virginia Axline, whose way of working with children was similar to Rachel Pinney’s. What a book! It’s the only thing I’ve read where I’ve straight away ordered ten copies and given them to friends.
In a nutshell, Pinney’s and Axline’s way of working with kids was with total attention and with no attempt to be analytical, to second-guess what was motivating or troubling the child. No diagnosis, no prognosis, no strategizing. Mindfulness wasn’t hip in those days, but in reality it was working with similar principles of using the integrating, healing power of simple awareness without letting judgement get in the way.
I started training with Dr Pinney and in an extraordinary synchronicity discovered she knew my old druid teacher Ross Nichols (Nuinn). Meg and I gave workshops on how to use the method, and I applied the principles I learned to spending time with my own children.
Rachel asked me to write a booklet on the method, and gave me a pile of notes. Meg helped me too and the result is the text below. If you’ve got kids, or work with children I believe this can help enormously to foster healthy, happy children.
Some of the text relates to training in the method, but in essence it’s a really simple method: you allocate a specific time period to giving total attention to the child – even as little as 20 minutes, and in that time you take care of the boundaries and use techniques like recapping and being non-analytical to stay present and give the child a deep sense of being ‘heard’. Once you’ve grasped the principles outlined here you will be able to put the ideas into practice right away.

by Philip Carr-Gomm, Rachel Pinney & Meg Robinson

Special Times by Math aged 7

“A child needs attention most of the time but most children don’t get enough. Just like the story Not Now Bernard where his mum and dad hardly ever look at him. He gets eaten by a monster and his mum and dad don’t know that a monster has come into the house and eaten Bernard. They just think he’s Bernard and keep saying “Not now Bernard”.
But Rachel Pinney has solved this problem by inventing Special Times. What you do is listen to the child while he can play and do anything he likes except dangerous things. And it is your responsibility to look after the child.
It makes the children much happier and they begin to feel wanted. Once they have had 7 or 6 of these the child begins to grow a happier life.”


Special Times have evolved from Dr Rachel Pinney’s conviction that children need to be listened to, a conviction that to be heard and appreciated is essential to a child’s growth.
From her techniques of ‘Creative Listening’ – designed to promote more effective communication between people – she developed a way of working with children which she originally called ‘Children’s Hours’ and which is now called ‘Special Times’.

Special Times are both a concept and a method. The basic idea is that children need regular periods of total, non-directive and non-judgemental attention. The method is simply a structured way of giving this attention. It has been practised extensively with beneficial results for both ‘normal’ and ‘disturbed’ children. All children, whatever their circumstances, derive enormous benefit from having a time and a space in which to play out their thoughts and feelings with a fully attentive adult who receives all that is said and done without judgement.

In our society the idea that ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ still influences our attitude towards children. Adults are in a more privileged position than children in being able to communicate their needs or worries to a friend, a counsellor or a doctor. Yet children also need to be ‘listened to’, either in connection with an upset, or simply so that they have a witness for what they are doing. They may well not know how to explain or express their needs, or they may not have the opportunity to do so. But if they do ask directly for this attention, and that request is ignored, rejected, or only partially met, it is likely that they will find other, indirect ways of demanding it: by sulking or throwing a tantrum, for example; or more seriously, by developing a neurotic symptom.

This indirect or distorted expression of their feelings and needs is often labelled simply as ‘naughtiness’. Others will more accurately describe it as ‘attention-seeking behaviour’. But more often than not, this behaviour will be met with the contrary response – the child will be punished or ignored, instead of being given the attention he or she is seeking.

Special Times are based on the experience that the need for children to ‘act out’ their frustrations in unacceptable and inappropriate ways decreases when they are given periods of time when they are totally attended to, whether by a parent, a friend, or someone with whom they are not so close.

But Special Times provide more than a time and space in which children can express the needs underlying their anger and frustration. They provide a safe and caring environment in which children can begin to express and explore all aspects of themselves.

Just as Special Times can help to fulfil emotional needs, so too with intellectual needs. Our society places enormous stress on progress and on goals – so that even good and loving educators tend to try to move children from where they are to where they ‘ought’ to be. The influence of this pressure carries on into adult life, so that we often feel our fulfilment lies in getting somewhere else rather than in simply being where we are. The effect on the child is that it makes him or her dependent on guessing the adult’s wishes rather than behaving autonomously, leading to behaviour patterns which make concentration difficult and boredom a likely outcome. Special Times, however, foster intellectual development by giving the time and space in which a child can build his or her own coherent concepts, rather than trying to learn someone else’s at a time, place and pace that someone else has decided is appropriate.

As such, these periods become creative times, in which tension is removed, and development enhanced.


(Throughout this section we use a female adult and a male child as an example)

Total Attention and Being With

The concept and practice of Special Times is based upon a belief that children need periods of total attention in order to fully develop a sense of their own self-worth, to value their own creativity, and to build their ability to socialise and relate to others more effectively.

In coming to an understanding of attention, it is important for us to see that we cannot give our full attention to someone or something if simultaneously we are assessing it and preparing our response. That would be ‘double-attending’ – one half of our attention focused on the input, the other half on our internal processes.

It is in fact very hard to give full and undivided attention, perhaps because we ourselves as children very rarely received such attention. It is difficult to develop an ability we have never experienced in others, and we can perhaps see divided attention as something that we have learnt and that is passed from generation to generation.

Most of us, then, need to learn how to give full attention, and this requires developing a number of skills. Certain techniques have been evolved in Special Times which use these skills, and are described in this section. They include the recap, and non-direction, non-evaluation and non-understanding.

The qualities of giving attention, of caring and of being in meaningful relationship with someone all seem to overlap, and we have summarised these different facets of a relationship in the term ‘being with.’

Being with means a way of relating that is rare in our society. It means relating from one’s central sense of self. It means a recognition that a relationship involves more than verbal communication. It involves a recognition that there is a value in being together with someone, even if no words pass between them. It is related to listening, to giving one’s attention, to being open, to being still, to being free from the need to ‘take’ anything from that person.

When we have a Special Time with a child, and say as our introduction “I’ll be with you”, this phrase is filled with meaning and it seems that the child knows this – he feels through the words a great sense of care, attentiveness and support.

Takers, Observers and Confidentiality

For the purpose of talking or writing about Special Times, the adult who attends to the child in the session is called a Taker. In practice, however, with a child, there is no need for a specific title for that role. The main role of the Taker is to be with the child and to take care of the boundaries described shortly. She will usually also take charge of the practical arrangements for the sessions.

Learning how to give Special Times is not difficult, but it does require the qualities of sensitivity and caring, together with the ability to listen. Detailed knowledge of psychology is not necessary, and for this reason, training is accessible to most people interested in working with children.

In order for people to learn how to give Special Times, the session will often include an Observer. The Observer is able to watch and thereby learn the skills of giving a Special Time, while also helping the Taker by being able to take charge of some of the limits of the session, particularly in situations where the Taker is asked by the child to close her eyes or stay in another room. The Observer can also be responsible for indicating the end of a period, thus freeing the Taker to give complete attention to the child. It is important to introduce the child to the Observer, and to explain her presence in a way that the child can understand. Should the child not want an Observer present, it is essential that this wish is respected.

Parents of children receiving Special Times or about to receive them, might ask to observe a session. It is not possible, however, for parents to observe their own child’s session, except in the way described in the next section. There are several good reasons for this. A child’s privacy must be honoured, since he may need to play out problems or issues related to his parents, so their presence during the session could be an inhibiting factor. Also, it might be confusing for a child to be able to do something in the session in front of his parents, which the parents do not normally allow him to do. Occasionally, however, a child might want to include one or other parent in a session, and this is different to having them observe. In special cases this has been allowed.

The Takers and Observers will never discuss with parents, teachers, or any outsiders what occurred during the session with a child, except in certain circumstances. It is important for the child to feel that his Special Times are private, and any sense that what occurred might be discussed with his parents or teachers could well inhibit or disturb him.

Introducing The Special Time

Whilst the most benefit probably derives from sessions which last an hour, it is often impractical to take children for a full hour, when working in school or playgroup settings, and the optimal time seems to be 20 to 30 minutes. The child should always be told the length of time to be given at the start of the session.

The introduction given to a child about to have his first Special Time needs to convey, in language that he can understand, a time limit within which he is free to engage in any activity he wishes, while the adult takes full responsibility for containing the activity within the limits of ‘Danger, Damage and Inappropriate Behaviour’, explained in the next section.

For example, when the child is first offered a Special Time, he might be asked if he would like to come and play for a while. If he accepts, then the adult could continue by saying “I’m going to give you a Special Time. For the next twenty minutes you can do exactly what you like. I’ll look after you, and I’ll be with you”.

If the child’s level of language comprehension is not up to this, then the session would just begin after the invitation to play, and the child would soon pick up the essence of it.

How parents should introduce the idea of a Special Time to their child before taking them for their first session, depends on the particular child and his age. The younger the child, the more naturally they seem to take to the idea of a Special Time, and therefore the more informal the introduction, the better it is.

For an older child it might be necessary to explain something of the principle behind a Special Time, perhaps suggesting that the child might like the opportunity to play more freely than is usually possible. If the parents feel unsure about this, they can discuss it with the Taker before bringing the child.

Further sessions, following the initial one, will usually need only a briefer introduction, such as “Hello, Matthew. Now we’re going to have a Special Time until the big hand of the clock reaches here.”

If a child is showing anxiety or uncertainty at the beginning of his session, it might be appropriate to simply recap the anxiety, thus showing that anxiety or shyness is acceptable (see section on Recapping further ahead) or it might be more helpful to depart from the usual non-directional approach, and to begin the session with what we have termed ‘hostessing’.

Since it does not serve the child’s best interests to leave him feeling anxious and uncomfortable at the outset of a session, the Taker might act the ‘hostess’ by playing herself or offering suggestions about what the child might like to do. As soon as the child begins to relax, the adult can return to the original nondirective role.

Although a complete Special Time can only be given without the parents present (for the reasons mentioned in the previous section) it might sometimes be appropriate to include in the play whoever does bring the child, for a while – just as one might if he was starting at a new school or playgroup.

Limits – Danger, Damage and Inappropriate Behaviour

It is important for us to understand that a child needs a sense of boundaries in order to feel secure. Paradoxically, to feel truly free to express himself in a Special Time, a child needs to know that certain limits do exist. We define these limits in the concept of ‘Danger, Damage and Inappropriate Behaviour’.

By the adult openly taking care that no danger, damage or inappropriate behaviour occurs, the child is freed from being concerned about these boundaries. The fact that the adult is taking care of these, is mentioned to the child at the start of the session. For many children it is sufficient to say something such as “I’ll look after you”, or “You can do anything you like, and if it’s not OK I’ll tell you”, for to mention the words danger or damage could cause anxiety. If, however, we are working with children we know are likely to express aggressive or destructive impulses, we must define the boundaries more specifically at the outset. We might say “I’ll make sure you don’t do anything really harmful” or “I’ll make sure that you don’t do anything really dangerous or hurt yourself or upset the neighbours too much.”

The risk of accidental damage is avoided, to a certain extent, by preparing the environment: by removing perilous or valued objects for example. But there still exists the possibility that the child himself will do something, or express the wish to do something, which – in the adult’s opinion – will constitute a danger, or may result in damage, or may be inappropriate in the context of the session.

While what is meant by Danger and Damage is clear, the concept of Inappropriate Behaviour as it is used in Special Times needs clarification. The concept invokes a concern for the needs of other people, rather than just the Taker and the child. For example, while it may be acceptable to the Taker to allow the child to scream in the playroom, it may well not be acceptable if the session is taking place out of doors, or where others might hear the screaming, since it might upset them.

When the Taker feels that she cannot allow certain behaviour, it is crucial that she conveys to the child that it is she herself, or other people around at the time, who are unable to accept this behaviour, or to go beyond certain limits. In this way the adult makes it clear that the boundaries are defined externally, by her, and that the child need feel no guilt in wanting to overstep them. This can be done by saying “I’m sorry, I can’t let you do that.” Or when it is a case of Inappropriate Behaviour, “I’m sorry I can’t let you do that here because some people might get upset.” The adult’s apology relieves the child of the burden of having wanted to do something ‘wrong’. As a general rule, therefore, if ‘no’ has to be said to the child in some form or other, it should always be expressed as “I’m sorry, but …”

If a child insists on doing something which the adult has indicated contravenes the boundaries mentioned, then the adult may have to physically prevent the child from doing whatever it is. Such physical restraint, however, is in the spirit of loving strength, not violence. Should a child, for example, want to throw hard objects at the adult, having been asked not to, the adult would restrain the child and, if appropriate, remove the objects from the reach of the child. First comes the appeal to the child’s reason, but if this is not accepted, then physical restraint may need to be used – gentle but firm physical restraint conveys physically what may not be accepted by the child when conveyed verbally. He may need to actually ‘feel’ the boundary. For this reason it is important when dealing with children who might need physical restraint, that the Taker is physically stronger than the child.

A child should never be allowed to hurt the Taker. If the adult does get hurt, it is important that the child is not burdened with guilt over this, or that he feels the adult is no longer in control.

Often people will question whether it is advisable to allow children to do things in their Special Times which they would not be allowed to do at home or at school. It is important to convey to the child that a Special Time really is ‘special’ in that it stands apart from, or is different in quality to, other times. In this way, he can appreciate that his way of behaving in a Special Time may not be appropriate at other times. Quite clearly it is not possible to give such attention to a child on a continuous basis, and certain kinds of behaviour which might be allowed in a session for their therapeutic value would be inappropriate in other contexts.


That an adult is totally with a child is expressed to him by recapping, a technique described beautifully by Virginia Axline in her book Dibs – In Search of Self. It consists of an interested selective commentary on what the child is doing, without any suggestion, opinion or interpretation. For example, “Now you’re going up the climbing frame”, “Now you’re jumping up and down” and so on. The commentary should not parrot the child, but reflect what was said or done. This need not necessarily be in a verbal form and indeed some children prefer it not to be. The adult could recap by doing what the child is doing.

Such non-verbal forms of recapping become more important for young children at the pre-verbal stage, for those with language difficulties, and for those whose first language is not that of the Taker. But even for these children, the spoken word can act as a vehicle for showing the child that he is being totally Iistened to. If the child does not want any form of recap then, of course, the adult stops doing it, but this is a rare occurrence.

When it does happen, the adult must work even harder to give complete attention without letting her mind wander. Also, if the child wants his Taker to play out a role, she would do that in preference to maintaining the recap.

Recapping provides a focus for the attention of the Taker, as well as making it clear to the child that the adult is fully with him. It provides the child with a deep sense of security, since the feedback he receives from the outside world totally validates his own behaviour and experience. He knows he is being heard, even when his language is that of play, not words. He also has the empowering experience of having a causal influence on another person. The adult is responding to him and not vice versa.

Recapping validates a child’s sense of self, confirming the reality of his actions and expressions. It also helps to develop consciousness of his own behaviour. It is a skill that needs to be learnt so that it does not become mechanical, but is in harmony with the child. Not only must the content of the recap be appropriate, but the tone of voice must reflect the affective tone, the emotional energy, of the child.

Non-Dlrection, Non-Evaluation, Non-Understanding

In Special Times we make no attempt to direct, evaluate or understand the child during a session. In avoiding these processes, and by providing a caring, supportive environment, we encourage him to develop his latent abilities, to develop his own autonomy, and to feel free to express his emotions fully.

By the adult making no attempt to direct the child or his activities during a session, the child is free to be and express himself. Unlike so many situations with adults, at home or at school, in which he is constantly directed to do or not do certain things, in a Special Time it is he who decides what to do – he is given the opportunity to develop his own self-directedness.

By making no attempt to evaluate, assess or criticise what the child says or does, we again leave him free to try out different ways of acting and being, without the fear of judgement.

We make no attempt to analyse or interpret what the child is doing, so that our ‘understanding’ does not get in the way of our attention and our being with the child. The child develops within a session regardless of whether or not the adult understands him, and the essential nature of a Special Time lies in the quality of the relationship with the child, and not in any attempt to ‘understand’ the child psychologically or intellectually.

The aim of Special Times is not to make sense of play activity, but to give the child total attention. While children need their play to be witnessed or received by an adult, they do not necessarily want the underlying meaning to be understood, as this could be sensed as an invasion of their privacy. The child’s inner life should remain inviolate.

Sometimes, of course, the adult does understand what the play might mean, but this understanding, or supposed understanding, must not get in the way of listening, because this might actually hinder the play, particularly if there has been a misinterpretation or if any judgemental element has been conveyed. If one pays attention to one’s own understanding of the child’s behaviour during the session, it means that full attention to the child has been lost, since one cannot fully attend to two things at the same time. The aim is to listen to the child not to the content of what he is saying or doing.


When the child is introduced to his Special Time, its duration is clearly specified. As it nears its end, the adult will say “You have five more minutes left of your Special Time”. This enables him to finish, or move towards the finish of whatever activity he is engaged in, while also preparing him for the end of the session.

When the time is up, the adult may feel it is appropriate to count down from ten to one, finishing with “One! Your Special Time is now over.”

It is important for both practical and psychological reasons that the time is not exceeded by the child. The timing of the session is a boundary for which the adult takes responsibility, as with the limits of Danger, Damage and Inappropriate Behaviour. In certain circumstances, however, the adult might feel it important to continue, in which case she may ask the child if he would like to continue. It is far better that the adult makes an offer, rather than the child making a demand or trying to manipulate the adult.

Breaking the Rules

The basic elements of the technique have now been described. But giving Special Times is more akin to an art than a science and, as such, technique on its own is insufficient. Every child and Taker is different, and every session is different, and so any of the techniques or ‘rules’ might have to be departed from at some time or another. Usually it takes practice and experience before a Taker can do this with confidence. It is better therefore to learn the ‘rules’ first and then develop a ‘feel’ for the work which will enable one to know intuitively when to change or break these rules in given instances.


The applications of Special Times are not restricted to individual sessions given to children by trained Takers. Many of the concepts and techniques are of relevance and value to parents, teachers and anyone else involved with children.

At school, teachers can try to give units of total attention to children who are particularly in need. “Attention-seeking behaviour” will often indicate which children would most benefit from these periods. Even if the units are only of very limited duration within a playschool or classroom context, perhaps during play time, they will be a source of support for the child, provided they incorporate the quality of being with and use recapping, non-direction, non-understanding and non-evaluation. It would not always be necessary or appropriate to apply the Introductory or Finishing procedures as previously described. Since finding enough time in school to be with children in this way is difficult, it is helpful to remember that it is the quality of attention and being with a child that is more important than the quantity of time given.

At home, by allocating specific times in which parents are with and totally attentive to their child, incorporating as many of the techniques outlined as feels appropriate, parents will find an enhancement and a deepening of their relationship. It is likely that they will also experience fewer demands from their children at other times, since the need that all children have for this kind of attention will have been satisfied, at least to an extent. It is of course important to give this time to all children in the family so that jealousy is avoided.

If we accept that one of the root causes of so much dissatisfaction and neurosis lies in not having received sufficient love and attention in infancy and childhood, we can appreciate that the practice of these methods will have a beneficial effect which will influence the entire course of development, through into adulthood.

People often ask about the ages and kinds of children who receive Special Times. While the principles are applicable to people of any age, including adults, in practice we tend to work with children between 2 and 11 years, but there are no age limits, and children of all ages can benefit from Special Times.

Because they focus on children’s potential rather than on their problems, Special Times are of value to all kinds of children, whether we label them ‘normal’ or ‘disturbed’. We could say that the Special Time is therapy to a ‘disturbed’ child, and growth-promoting to a so-called ‘normal’ child.

The ideas and techniques of Special Times are applicable in a wide range of settings, fostering creativity and development, deepening relationships, and satisfying a vital need of the human soul.


Bobby, Breakthrough of an Autistic Child   Rachel Pinney. Harvill 1983

Dibs-In Search of Self   Virginia Axline. Penguin 1964

For Wider Reading

Reading and Loving  Leila Berg. Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977

Look at Kids   Leila Berg. Penguin 1972

From Two to Five   Kornei Chukovsky. University of California Press 1963

Play is a Feeling   Brenda Crowe. Allen & Unwin 1983

How Children Fail   John Holt. Penguin 1965

How Children Learn   John Holt. Penguin 1967

A Manual of Non-Violence & Children   Edited by Stephanie Judson. Friends Peace Committee USA 1977

Sonrise   Barry N. Kaufman. Warner Books New York 1977

Lovey, A Very Special Child   Mary MacCracken. Signet USA 1977

A Circle of Children   Mary MacCracken. Sphere 1981

CityKid   Mary MacCracken. Sphere 1982

The Drama of the Gifted Child (and the search for the true self)   Alice Miller. Faber & Faber 1979

For Your Own Good (Hidden cruelty in child rearing and the roots of violence)   Alice Miller. Faber & Faber 1980

Four Years Old in an Urban Community   J & E Newson. Penguin 1968

The Self-Respecting Child   Alison Stallibrass. Penguin 1974