Den Building



Five Tips For Den Building

Long summer days are the perfect time to get outside with young children, to get messy, dirty, and creative. You don’t need sunshine, just a few simple bits and pieces and lots of imagination and enthusiasm to have a wonderful day that won’t cost you a penny.

Den building isn’t just fun, as Josie Barnard of The Guardian says, “Building a den is great for encouraging children’s imagination and reinforces their sense of self”.

Dens can be made out of almost anything, tables and chairs, sheets and blankets and other things that most people have lying around the house but there is also lots of fun to be had exploring and collecting free materials, allowing children to come up with creative ideas and be resourceful while keeping them busy for the whole day!

Elizabeth Jarman says “allow everyday items around the home to set the scene for play – consider what might capture your child’s imagination, take a look at some of things in your recycling box!”

1. Collect Materials

Give your child a bag and ask them to collect things for their den. Whether it is grass and leaves from the back garden, cushions and toys from their bedroom or pebbles from the beach. They will enjoy exploring their surroundings and trying to find unusual, interesting items to put in their bag.

Unlike off the shelf playhouses, castles, shops and tipis, homemade dens aren’t prescriptive, they can be anything children want them to be. A den can be a café or a castle or something completely imaginary. Young children only have limited life experience so should be allowed to experiment with role play, making new games and learning through the process. “An open ended den allows children to develop creative and independent learning.  When dens are prescriptive, they are no longer a special place for children and learning opportunities are limited” (Joanne Law, Company Director, Infinite Playgrounds).

Indoor Den Builing

2. Make a Structure

So what elements do you need for the perfect den? A good, sturdy structure is normally a good starting point. Chairs, tables, washing lines, tree branches and trunks are one quick way and are excellent for money saving over bought structures. Long sticks, bamboo canes, branches, poles, or broom handles can be tied together using rope, string or torn strips of fabric to create imaginative structures. Y shaped branches are useful as they can be slotted or tied together. Tipi shapes are fairly straightforward but dens can combine different shapes and sizes, using cardboard boxes, bendy materials, tyres or hay bales, creating exciting tunnels and intriguing hidden corners.

Once a strong structure has been made dens can be covered in sheets, tablecloths, towels, waterproof tarpaulins, moss or lots of leaves and leafy branches. It’s important to keep dens sturdy but lightweight in case they collapse. Avoid using nails or screws as they aren’t necessary and will often get left in the wood after the building. Stick to using string or fabric or simply leaning objects against each other. Pegs are a good way of fixing fabric over dens and can be used over and over again.

3. Find a Place

Where can you build a den? Fields, woods, beach, garden, back yard or living room. This is where ideas come into play! When you are out and about or just sitting on the sofa, start to look for the potential in spaces and objects. With a bit of thought, fantastic play opportunities can be created without spending a penny. You don’t need instructions and you can’t do it wrong.

Come up with ideas with your children. If you are in a large group, try splitting into teams and giving yourself a challenge like who can build the biggest den or the best structure in an allotted time. Working together is great for all age groups to support bonding, and develop team building, and problem solving skills.

4. Keep it Child-Led

With older children or when two or more children are playing happily together it is a good idea to hang back and let them work out ways to build, fix, strengthen and create and beyond that allow them to develop games and scenarios you may not have thought of. They may need your help for example moving heavier logs, stacking hay bales or tying structures together but allowing play to evolve without too much interference is key. Usually children need just a few minutes of your time to get back on track with their play. Keep in mind that you are there to support and facilitate play without being too restrictive or intrusive.

“Children may use carefully considered small spaces for times to reflect and communicate with others. Remember the times you built dens as your kingdom and formed friendships and secret rules as ways of being together when in this special place.  This type of reflective communication only happens when children feel safe and value their spaces” (Joanne Law).

If there are no other children around, your child will enjoy playing with you. Spending money isn’t important for enjoyable memorable days just a few one to one hours. Try to keep the play child-directed and remember not to take over what and how you want to play.

5. Make Sure it’s Safe

Den building is all about getting back to nature and exploring the world but safety should always be a consideration. Whether you are at the park, the beach or in the woods, be sure to give the area a quick once over for broken glass, holes, pooled water, nearby roads, ponds, streams or drops. Children need a clean and organised space for play. This does not mean it can’t be outdoors, in natural areas but that it needs to be clear of debris and dangerous materials that can ruin play experiences.

Den building and moreover imaginative and creative play in general is a wonderful way for children to learn about the world that involves exercising both their minds and bodies, helping them to be healthy and strong, releasing energy and developing co-ordination.

Maria Kylin, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, has researched dens from the urban planner’s perspective. She believes they are critical because, “They allow children to experience danger in a secure environment. They are places in which children can challenge themselves, mentally and physically, in preparation for the rigors of adulthood.” 

Activities like den building are a great alternative to the time many children spend sitting in front of screens; watching TV or DVDs, playing on the computer or play station and best of all it’s completely free. This summer, get outside, get creative and enjoy yourself, your child’s imagination really is your only limit.