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making dens and other spaces to hide away in
Making dens has featured again and again in projects I’ve worked on, sometimes as the main focus of a project and sometimes it’s crept in alongside other things. Making dens – making your own space – is something that touches both children and adults and the issues
within this are fascinating. Dens have cropped up in several inset sessions I’ve run as well as so many sessions with children.
In many projects children have made dens for themselves, but the urge to den-build crops up often as children make spaces for others to inhabit: maybe a den for ladybirds or a home for a peg-doll or a place for a puppet to live. When given the space to do so, children frequently begin to build dens (on all scales) without an adult suggesting it.
Dens can be as simple as a piece of cloth draped over a couple of chairs or a big cardboard box; or they can be complex affairs that take weeks to build and refine. For children, it’s the act of building the den that is compelling, children will experiment and then use their den and then refine it and test out new ideas and re-make aspects of it. Dens become spaces for role play, for building communities, for finding peace and quiet, for inventing, for imagining…
For children, it’s usually not about making a polished finished structure, it’s the act of making a den yourself and exploring it that is important.
Dens can become amazing spaces for imaginative play to grow and
spread. They can be excellent spaces for friendships to develop.
They can also be wonderful spaces for children to hide away and read,
reflect, think, be calm and rest. I’ve watched children spend long periods of time inside dens they’ve made making things in lego, or drawing, or reading books, or writing. Having space to just“be” and watch and reflect is crucial; children often crave a space to find a bit of calm and to be hidden away from others.
Dens make you feel hidden and secret – and they also allow you to look out onto others. Children learn vast amounts by watching other people and reflecting on what they are observing, but this does take time and the right kind of space.
Dens can be made of a host of materials. They can be inside or
outside. Dens in woodland or gardens can allow you to notice so much about the natural world that might otherwise remain hidden. Dens can
start off as one thing and change into another. In a den-making project at Highbank Primary School I worked with a group of children who’d started making a den for themselves outside using bamboo and willow. They’d placed their den under an old cherry tree and suddenly noticed several ladybirds who were crawling along the willow sticks; so they changed their plans. They were so captivated by the ladybirds that their den became an amusement park for the ladybirds to explore. They were focused for a whole day creating this – and were incredibly gentle with the ladybirds.