I love dens. Always have – as a child I would spend hours in the garden with my brother and sister, collecting large branches, reeds, planks of wood – anything to make a den with.
I think the joy was being able to create something from nothing. (I also suspect that I had an enclosure schema going on. Even now I like to sit in the corner of a café, tidy things into boxes and prefer grids to mind maps).
Of course, once you have an enclosed areas such as a den, you can invite others in – or shut them out. The element of self-choice can be very important to children. Sometimes even well meant adult intervention can be disruptive or even destructive to children’s play.
In the book ‘The Trouble with Play’ (reviewed here) there is the very memorable story of a practitioner who encourages a child to join a group already play a game of Cinderella. The newcomer is given the role of the ‘piece of paper collecting the cinders’. I’m sure the group hadn’t meant to belittle or embarrass their friend, but it does demonstrate how well meant adult intervention can sometimes go very wrong.
Another great aspect of the humble den is the toys you can take into it. I would have stacks of different books to read or look at. A lot of children find a quiet corner to snuggle down and read in – it seems to be a natural thing to do. You will often find children filling dens with an eclectic mix of all their favourite toys – and what a great way to find out what their favourite toys are! A quick photo will evidence this.
As well as toys, children will fill dens with their friends and close social group. This is a great time for an invited adult to initiate Sustained Shared Thinking (see more here about Sustained Shared Thinking and pedagogy). Elizabeth Jarmen’s ‘Communication Friendly Spaces’ can often look like dens, with their comfy furnishings and intriguing contents, because this type of environment encourages children to talk and to listen.
Finally, dens are a brilliant piece of self expression. Whether you build a den suitable for one or whether you build somewhere that you can invite friends into; do you include a picnic area or is this den a rocket ship going to distant stars? Or maybe your den is designed to attract friends over, such as Eeyore or the Gruffalo. The sorts of stories and imaginative play that dens encourage in children can demonstrate their thinking processes, their favourite books and their developing personalities.
Considering dens can be as simple as a sheet over a table, or a few carefully arranged cardboard boxes, they can be an incredibly rich source of play, imagination and self expression.
What sort of den will you build with your children today?