Thursday, 5 November 2009

Pritschen, priccsek, plinths

Seven notes, historical and terminological


I have been sorting papers, a never-ending task. Up has surfaced a snap-shot photo that I took in September 2003.

The photo, taken with a disposable plastic camera and its feeble flash bulb, is not a good one. It was taken in late afternoon in an ill-lit room. It shows the bare, bleak, shabby interior of a wooden barrack building. In the corner stands a single item of furniture, a crude wooden bed, covered only by a thin, grey, comfortless blanket. The photograph, taken on a cheap, plastic disposable camera with a feeble flash, is not a good one.

It was September 2003. I had been to Zamość in south-east Poland, to a colloquium organised by the organisation Krok za Krokiem (‘Step by Step’). On the way back I visited the Department of Psychological Rehabilitation at the Catholic University of Lublin where I was I was asked what I wanted to see in during my very limited time in that ancient and beautiful university city. I replied ‘Only Majdanek’.

Late afternoon on a grey September’s day beyond the outskirts of the city, the tourist season at an end, no guides on duty, hardly a soul there, ourselves alone in the gathering darkness of that carefully maintained and terrible place.

Some 300,000 men, women and children were imprisoned there Some 235,000 of these perished, their bodies burned, more than eighteen thousand on one single day (3 November 1943). Around half were Jews, then there were Soviets, Poles, other nationalities…

The Mausoleum at the head of the camp is a hideously ugly piece of architectural brutalism, appropriately so. The great heap of grey ash that lies beneath its squat dome is more that a memorial to those who suffered and died, it is them, some of them at least, bearing witness still.

Only a few of the wooden barrack huts in which the prisoners lived survive. Within the electrified barbed-wire perimeter fence most of the site is now bare, wind-swept grass. In one of the wooden barrack huts that have been preserved is a huge, melancholy collection of shoes. So many shoes. A red pair of girl’s shoes remain imprinted on my mind from the thousands and thousands of others there that I could not take in. Recycling shoes was a major industry at Majanek, 80,000 pairs were still being processed there when the camp was liberated. Another major industry involved human hair, and industrial-scale looting of the prisoners’ possessions, and their bodies. For some reason it is those little red shoes that I remember.

Then of course there were the gas chambers, and the Kremat.

Vivid, searing impressions but the mind blanks out details. Was it one of the remaining huts or two (or more) that is preserved as living quarters? The wooden slatted beds are stacked three-high, in racks. In a far corner I found the single bed that was the subject of my snap-shot.

The German word for such slatted beds is Pritsch [i]. This transfers across readily into Hungarian as priccs [ii]. I guess that there are equivalent words in different transliterations across Central and Eastern Europe.

We do not have this word in English. We were fortunate not to have the need.


Mid-eighties Germany. The first Conductive Education pioneer was Gabi Haug. Later Fr. Prof. Karin Weber originated the term konduktive Förderung to denote a new ‘multi-disciplinary’ practice but Gabi had been a special pedagogue and used the obvious expression, konduktive Pädagogik.

Her Dad told her: ‘Gabi, you are wasting your time, this will never catch on in Germany. No parents will want to think of their children on Pritschen


In 1998-9 I was redacting Júdit Forrai’s living-history collection of the reminiscences of then already elderly people who had known András Pető in Budapest, from 1945 to his death in 1967. Júlia Dévai’s recollections went back so far as even to predate Mária Hári’s arrival on the scene. In 1947 Pető at last acquired some sort of dedicated accommodation for his work, in premises belonging to the special education training college. The facilities were exceedingly rudimentary, just four empty rooms and a below-stairs cubicle. There was of course no money to equip it.

In the treatment room we had three berths, put together by a concentration-camp survivor carpenter. Because of the general post-war poverty, the carpenter had only fragments of timber, broken logs and boards, thus he could not make a bench with a nice smooth surface. He created something called ‘priccs’. It was the prototype of the obligatory Pető bed today. He said he got the idea from the concentration camp, and, he added with a good-hearted self-irony, if these berths were good enough for the prisoners, they would certainly be OK for some young crips…

Now, in 2009, I note that, in retyping this passage for publication in Conductive World, my redaction carefully had avoided ahistorical use of the English word ‘plinth’.


In 1964 a British physiotherapist Ester Cotton had visited András Pető at the State Institute in Budapest. When she came back she set out to make his work known, and she had to find the ideas and words to do so.

Ester has been originally Danish, from an educated family. She spoke German and spent a period being educated in that country (it is said that she once by chance met Adolf Hitler there, in a lift).

In Budapest, she and András Pető surely communicated in their common language of German. Back home in London, what word could she use in English to convey the meaning of Pritsch? A rudimentary wooden bunk-bed, a pallet, a berth, a bed? Certainly, she would have known of the meanings and associations of the original German word. It would surely be a mercy if any new word used could leave these behind where they belonged, half-way across Europe and buried in the past. But what to call this thing as it was reborn into the English language?

She plumped for ‘plinth’.

As an ordinary educated layman I could never understand why this word was chosen, till I twigged: the word ‘plinth’ in the sense of something you lie on to have things done to you, or to make ‘exercises’, is a longstanding English usage in the arcane world of physiotherapy. Search the Internet for “plinth” AND “therapy” to find the amazing range of commercial products new available. Or, if you really care, get yourself a copy of the hundred-year history of the word in this sense:

Creasey, M. (1987) One hundred years of physiotherapy plinths, Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, vol. 2, no 1, pp. 35-38

I am sure that Ester Cotton meant well and I do not envy her the translation tasks that she faced (though I regret her chosen solutions such as ‘principles‘ and, of course, ‘Conductive Education’ itself). Be that as it may, naming these things ‘plinths’ helped place Conductive Education comfortably within the preconceptions and expectations of a particular profession. And it has been under this abiding name that plinths live on as a central part of her influential invention, the ‘principles of Conductive Education’.

The rest, as they say is history… Or is it?


Saturday, 7 November 2009, the day after tomorrow. A conference in Nürnberg: Konduktive Forderung - ein weg zur Teilhabe und Integration [iii].

From the afternoon’s programme: Die Bedeutung der Pritsch - Einsatz und Vorteile [iv]

No doubt this presentation will throw some most interesting sidelights upon this near ubiquitous (in CE) bit of kit. Would that I could be there to experience this, and the 45 minutes’ Pause (Kaffee + Kuchen) that follows straight after.


So much for history. What about a bit of speculative counterfactual, some ‘what-if history’?

There seems grounds for suspecting that plinths (or rather the need to stoop across them and hump them about) comprise the largest single occupational health risk amongst those who work in Conductive Education (I do not of course count madness here!).

What if the Health and Safety authorities had spotted this and required plinths’ immediate withdrawal from use?

What would conductors have done then, poor things? Rejoice possibly and turn their ingenuity to elaborating other ways of working. Where would the ‘principles’ be then, with a ragged hole torn from their centre? What new címer [v] could be sewn there in its place by those who wish to rally round the banner of the principles?

It could never happen, could it, so I guess that nobody is making contingency plans.


I have just realised today’s date. It is Guy Fawkes Day
  • Remember, remember , the fifth of November
    The gunpowder treason and plot.
    I know of no reason
    Why the gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot.

Tonight across this Kingdom, it is Bonfire Night.

Nuff said?

[i] ‘pallet bed’

[ii] ‘plank-bed, bunk, berth, bed of boards…’, Magyar-Angol Nagyszótár, p. 1186

[iii] A way to participation and integration

[iv] ‘The meaning of the Pritsch - utilisation and advantages’

[v] Hungarian for ‘coat of arms‘. The image is from 1956.


  1. An interesting piece of history Andrew. I remember hearing it in the past and the trembling I have experienced. As a Jew I'm probably much more sensitive to such stories.
    Yet, furnitures, whether for horrible distractive ideas or great empowering ideas, are negligible. Absolutly meaningless.

  2. Regarding V.

    As you probably anticipate I will be listening with ears wide open on Saturday, my questions are already prepared for every eventuality, with a little help now, thank you, from this posting!

    Although Saturday's presentation on the plinth and its uses was also given in Munich last year I will hear it this weekend for the first time. In Munich I just couldn't bring myself to miss an interesting parallel session to listen to a talk about a piece of wood. On saturday I am determined not to miss it for the world! Especially as this lecture was chosen above my own offer to talk about the Soul of Conductive Education.

    Perhaps the punters will be lucky and find a soul in a plinth or even discover a principle, we will see and I will report it all, as usual, on my blog, when I get home on Saturday evening. That won't be after the Kaffeepause but after the Abendessen that I suspect, in the plush setting of the Grand Hotel, will be even more sumptous than the cakes!



    Interestingly we had a huge delivery in Boxdorf yesterday of a couple of truck loads of second hand plinths, all that remains of the Conductive Education department at a local clinic for children. The clinic has been closed for several years now the furniture was/is still looking for a good home!

    Goodness knows what we are going to do with it all, we have a cellar full already that we don't use.

    Perhaps I should suggest free gifts at the congress on Saturday - "a take away principle".

    There is never a good place to dispose of the left over furniture when a centre closes down, there is no Guy Fawkes night in Germany either, yet!

  3. I am sorry to have to write this, but I find this posting disturbing and I am finding it very hard to search for its constructiveness. I feel that it doesn’t do any good to the already scrutinised and misinterpreted name and practice of Conductive Education. But I might be wrong.
    During my training I was never taught about it in these terms, but I was taught why and how it helps in a wide variety of ways to teach children and adults with many different neurological conditions. (Including learning about parameters, boundaries, measuring distances and identifying different positions of body and limbs including separation and meeting of fingers in prone, supine and side lying positions etc. Many cognitive skills are taught on the plinth, which are the blueprints of motor functions etc. On the plinth the work of the hands could be addressed in so many different ways.
    The plinth in our modern days of CE has already lost its significance. I don’t understand why. In many projects even conductors put children on the floor and work on mats. Actually they prefer it that way I was told many times.
    Our children spend most of their time lying on the floor or usually in w sitting or in specifically designed supportive chairs at home and at school. They have no idea how to organise their body in time and space between those positions.
    Also sitting at the plinth, learning to grasp and release, standing up, standing, reaching for toys or desired objects, walking around the plinth as any other child would do by holding onto furniture at the beginning of learning to walk, provide endless opportunities to actively explore the environment which wouldn’t happen using a similarly sized table.
    To transfer these processes to a mat programme is a skill itself requires true understanding of what is being taught.

    From aesthetic and health and safety point of you, leaning over the children and adults from a kneeling or crouching position is questionable.

    I am for stating historical facts if they are true. I cannot be sure whether this fact is true or not as I wasn’t alive when they happened and I was never shown a document, which could be counted as proof.

    By connecting the plinth to the benches in the concentration camps, for many it triggers very frightening memories and feelings. These feelings are carried forward to the new generations in those families who had to go through it. They will never be forgotten.

    I hope that this posting will not encourage people who are working with Conductive Education to reject the plinth altogether and I also hope that it will not frighten off potential parents who are seeking solutions for their children.
    I didn’t feel comfortable writing this comment for many reasons, but I decided to do so for the sake of balancing some facts written about CE for public information.
    Judit Szathmáry conductor

  4. Judit,

    I agree with all that you say about the work that can be done on a plinth, but this work can also be done elsewhere in other situations with other tools.

    A plinth can be useful but it is not the be-all-and-end-all and it is not indispensable and can certainly not be considered a "principle of Conductive Education" as it so oftened is.

    A conductive upbringing can and must take place without it. A plinth has become a tool of our craft, it is not necessarily the best tool.

    I spend many hours in my head designing my ideal working environment and each time do you know what I come up with?

    A home.

    A house complete with all the obstacles that make life for a person with a physical disability difficult.

    A house full of obstacles which can be over come or adapted for use just as the plinth was.

    I imagine a home that must be lived in and not cluttered up with heavy, hard, unsightly and uncomfortable wooden

    An alternative to the house, another of my visualisations and perhaps one day even realisable, is a room which is an adventure playground. A huge space with climbing frames and swings and wendy houes and ladders and slides and bridges and wobbly ways and sandpit and and and.... and an end of hours wasted moving furniture and preparing games and the beginning of days that are only bits-in-between.

    Whether historically the link between the "Petö" plinth and the concentration camp plinth is a fact or not I don't know, but visually the link is there for all to see.

    Living and working in Germany in is important that I remember this link especially when first introducing families to conductive education and upbringing. The sight of a plinth can form a barrier in those first important minutes which is often impossible to break down.

    First impressions, are often lasting impressions, but more importantly it is not possible to wipe out events from the past, and even with the younger generations with which I am usually working it is advisable to tread carefully.

  5. Susie,
    Thank you for your response.
    I know that our work can be done without the plinth but why do it elsewhere?
    Also how can you stretch the hips and correct feet positions on the mat? When children are lying on the mat gravity is in not used as a facilitator to correct the feet positions at the ankles in prone position. Not to mention to teach grasping when it has to be to a fixed position down by their sides for children who are unable to grasp moving, non-fixed objects. How about standing up at the plinth, pulling up and pulling along? (For some children the only active way of moving is pulling along the plinths. At Petö we had long plinth rows where the children can independently and actively move from A to B only on the plinths. This was their only way of actively participating, independently and orthofucntionally.
    Of course it is for them only a teaching tool to feel success, independent problem solving, freedom from any adult’s intervention and to provide learning steps to function better in other everyday activities in life. It is not for home use.
    When I talked about the plinth I was not talking about the principles of Conductive Education and I didn’t think that it was the be all and end all of our work. The plinth is not a principle and it can’t be.
    Conductive upbringing must take place without the plinth, but in certain cases maybe it is the only answer.
    The plinths don’t create clutter and it is harder to facilitate on the floor. The visual fields of facilitators are restricted when working on the mats leaning over one or two children.
    Is it easy to move around and don’t be static at facilitating especially with very young children when their mothers/fathers are involved as learners and facilitators? The floor could be a very crowded place for all.

    I like and respect your vision. We all have a vision which is important, relevant and which could move things forward towards a better future for the children and adults who choose to benefit from Conductive Education. But we were not discussing our visions as a response to Andrew’s posting.
    Judit Szathmáry conductor

  6. Dear Susie and Judit,
    I must admit, that no connotation of Israeli families being at the Peto Institute of the Plints resemblance to beds in concentration camps can I recall. That does not mean that all have shared all their feelings with us, but yet, if it were prominent, I would have known.
    Shouldn't we forget, that after all, in a very different context, this piece of furniture has been dressed with a new meaning.
    We should however, bare in mind this historical information, whether it is true or not, in order to me a more sensitive service provider.
    As to the discussion whether we should or should not use the Plints, I want to make my point clear:Any piece of furniture, aid, technology (wheter low or high) ,offered to a child, the family etc. should be considered as legitimate if enhancing the client motivation and participation.
    Yet, sometimes, the "special equipment" typical for conductive education, may mislead the viewer to believe that this is what CE is all about. We know it isn't. We know that a good conductor does not really need all these stuff to conduct. It is only a facilitator which may be very helpful, or not, depends on the context, environment etc.
    I truly believe that we should prefer conductive education without Plints on Plints without conductive education