Building Dens


April 19, 2021

Building Dens

My auntie and my cousin are brilliantly creative in their projects – their page Crafty Aliceness is really fun to follow – and an article they highlighted has stuck with me for months now, Why kids love building forts – and why experts say that they might need them more than ever.

It includes research from Professor David Sobel on how ‘metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects children’s growth as individuals … they create a “home away from home”, free from parental control’. But also that, as long as the child is in charge of the space, it can also be great as a way of kids and grown ups bonding and having fun together.

The article talks about the importance of these places where children can build imaginative worlds, control the sensory experience inside, and know that any change is controlled by themselves. It was written last May and reflected the value of forts in a time of uncertainty and disruption, but I wonder if now isn’t just as significant a time. For my little ones, their normal is what we once thought of as so strange, and beginning to have people in their garden is lovely but unsettling, let alone back in our home. Dens feel like a genuinely practical strategy for this time of readjustment.

‘All forts, according to Sobel, share common traits: They are handmade, somewhat secretive and “you can look out, but others can’t see in.” They are safe — physically and emotionally. “It’s your place where you want to be just you, observing but unseen,” he says.’

It seems there’s a difference in purpose and technique depending on the age of the children, with a focus on the space being built and controlled by the child when they’re a bit older. With toddlers my experience is definitely that the hard work of construction, and re-construction… and re-re-construction, is very much with the grown up and the children are more interested in a managerial role. I also think there’s more enjoyment of interventions, especially if it’s a den you’re keeping up for a few days or more… the sudden appearance of a couple of books, musical instruments, or tea party props, have all been well received.

This might all feel like yet another ‘great idea’ that puts pressure on your time and energy but we’ve found a couple of ways to make it lighter that might work for you too. One is to not be afraid of using less handmade options – we’ve been given two pop up tents which are brilliant and there are a range of possibilities in the Hobbycraft Easter sale. The other is fitting den-building in with what you’re doing anyway – if you’re changing beds, why not drape the sheets and duvet covers around for some play time before they go in the wash. Or if you have an airer out to dry washing, pop a blanket over it for a bit.

Lastly, if anyone has any suggestions on den-building for grown ups, I would dearly love to hear them. The cupboard under the stairs is mostly quiet but a little cramped…