Sheets, a clothes airer and a load of cushions. It doesn’t take much to convert a pile of soft furnishings into a castle, or a cave, or a spaceship or a fairy glade.
What is it about sitting cocooned between a cushion and a pillow in a blanket cave that makes this the ultimate place to read a book or share a secret or two? The majority of dens we have built in the Life of Ryrie have been in the most public of places of our home; the sitting room or the hall where eavesdroppers are abound. Yet the children remain convinced that what goes on in the den, what’s said in the den, stays in the den.
Dens have always had a role to play in childhood role play and recently J participated in a drama club which capitalised on this phenomenon. The lady who took the club asked them what a StoryDen would be, how it would make them feel, what they could do in it, the adventures they could go on. It was really clever (well, I thought it was) because the children’s ideas were turned into a 15 minute play which had a den for a set, a few swimming noodles as props and they mimed actions to illustrate their words and communicate their thoughts. It was original, fun and perfectly captured the sentiments, emotions and excitement of creating dens when you are six years old.
Since then we have had dens in the study, dens in the living room, dens in the garage, dens in the garden. Even the Lego has been used to build mini-dens for the mini figure collective that we own. My pegs have been stretched to keep blankets in place over high stools and clothes airers. My throws and cushions from the ‘posh room’ have been scattered over the floor to create ceilings, walls and beds. I have walked into the kitchen to find it bereft of chairs and then walked into the study to find an amalgamation of every item of soft furnishing and movable furniture. I have to say it drives me mad, but I love it.
That doesn’t mean to say that we haven’t ever made dens before, because we have, in fact T started early in her pursuit of the perfect den. We were encouraging her to pull her eleven month old self into a standing position (she had shown no signs of crawling or bum walking) so we threw a sheepskin rug, a few books and couple of her favourite toys into a large cardboard box and popped her in. Within a couple of days (don’t worry we didn’t leave her in it all that time) she had not only learnt to pull herself to standing but she had also discovered that looking through her books in a cosy enclosed space was one of the best activities, ever. The cardboard box was not allowed to move to the recycling pile until it had been squashed flat from the amount of times little T had clambered over the sides to spend a happy fifteen minutes cosy and safe in her own space.
I remember making dens with T and J when they were toddlers. Their delight in being allowed to have the kitchen chairs in the sitting room (exciting in itself) then draped with a sheet and padded with cushions was just, well, delightful. The way they marvelled at crawling in under the ‘door’ and sitting cosy inside was marvellous. They would pretend that it was bed time, so they would crawl inside, get lovely and cosy and then pretend to sleep. I would have to tiptoe around and whisper so as not to wake them (“Mummy, we’re asleep, you have to be quiet”).
Now that the children are getting older, and with the knowledge they have gleaned from Forest School the outside dens are becoming a more common feature. Ironic really considering that we inherited a playhouse with our new home, but this ready made erection doesn’t seem to tick the boxes for a perfect den.
The outdoor dens take a little more skill, a little more thought and a little more planning to construct. We currently have one in the garden that started off very differently but because it kept collapsing the children changed the design, made it sturdier and a week later it is still standing. I have no doubt that this den will morph into something different over time, but there will still be a corner of the garden hosting a den in which the children can take a snack, a book, maybe even each other, and have a happy time in their own kingdom. Safe and private to share a few secrets and gain a sense of independence.
I guess that this sums up exactly why dens are so popular with children, not only does the construction process allow them to follow a creative idea giving a sense of satisfaction and achievement when the job is complete, but it presents a child with control over their environment. One in which, no matter how flimsy the materials, they feel safe, private and secret. A den is an environment in which they can just be, and be themselves.
In the StoryDen
We make pictures in our heads
We feel cosy and safe
We travel to another place
In the StoryDen.
NB: In writing this post I came across a very interesting article on forts and dens and a link to the article is here: Islington Play .