Constructing a den can be a magical learning experience as well as being a lot of fun.  It's one of those activities where the process is just as much fun as the end product!  Our role as educators is to facilitate the play by providing suitable resources and spaces for den building.  Children also need responsive, tuned in adults to facilitate their play, understanding when to provide support and when to stand back and enable children to work through ideas themselves.

Den building

Where can we build a den?

In terms of spaces, we can be creative, using many different areas for den building, which is especially important for those settings who do not have access to a wooded area.  The great thing about dens is that they can be constructed anywhere, and specific equipment is not necessary.  However, for those hard core den building settings, there are some fabulous resources available to buy to enhance your construction experiences.  Let's start by thinking about resources.  Here is a list of ideas of equipment which can be used for den building.  Most of this can be acquired for free or at a reasonable cost.  It's worth asking families at the setting if they have any of these things at home which are no longer needed.  Making friends with your local charity shop is also a great idea!

Basic den building equipment:

Some settings will be fortunate enough to have access to natural play areas where children can use sticks and logs to construct dens, erect canopies under trees and between branches.  This could be part of usual daily play experiences on through Forest School.  However, not all settings have access to such areas but this isn't a problem.  A den can be built anywhere.  All we need is a little imagination and creativity!

Once you have some of the basic equipment, the next thing on the list are enthusiastic adults to inspire and model play.  Sometimes, children need ideas from us in order to extend their own play, based on the way we have used the equipment.  From this, children can come up with their own ideas, problem solve, think critically and be creative.  This process is always fascinating to watch as children begin to experiment and test out ideas - this is where we really see the characteristics of effective learning in action!

The benefits of den building....

Enabling children to 'have a go' at den building can have a massive impact on learning and development.  With this type of experience, it is the process as well as the play afterwards which can give rise to learning.  It often evolves organically as children think and test out ideas, as well as through cooperation with others.  As den building can be a tricky process, children learn transferable skills in action such as perseverance, tolerance, cooperation, determination and patience.  Even as adults, we'll find ourselves reflecting on den building play and realise that we've used many of these skills too.

The active nature of den building means that there is usually lots of chatter.  It really is one of those experiences which promotes communication and language development in a fun, hands on way.  Children discuss plans, share ideas, give and follow instructions, listen, negotiate and think aloud.  It's also a great way for us as educators to promote sustained shared thinking, as we wonder and learn together with the children.  We can think about what might work, how we could change the design if necessary, equipment that is needed and wonder 'what might happen if...'  This is a fantastic way to encourage children to think critically, engage in discussions and share ideas.  Through this process, we can also model language as a way of extending vocabulary.  You could share these new words you're learning with families so they can find ways of using them at home in play.

As den building is a practical, hands on activity involving equipment and sometimes tools, the children will be gaining many skills including dexterity, coordination, strength and balance.  The process of reaching, lifting, carrying and stretching will be working lots of different muscle groups, essential for gross motor development.  Opportunities for fine motor skill development are evident through the way we need to use our fingers and hands to open pegs, tie knots, thread, grasp and pull.  

Whilst constructing a den, little minds will be working extra hard. They will be problem solving, thinking critically, using their imagination, being creative and making links. Children will be learning through trial and error, what works and what doesn't, how to adapt their approaches, building knowledge which they can refer back to in future and developing a sense of empowerment as they bring their ideas to life. There will be lots of thinking in process as children are working through ideas in their minds, independently or in collaboration with others. By communicating with others, children can think together, discussing all aspects of the den building process - how can we fix the blanket to the pole? How will we get into the den? How many can fit inside? There's also that immense sense of satisfaction when the construction is complete and it's time to enjoy play in the den!

Once the den has been constructed, the play and learning doesn't end here.  It's time to move in and decide what the den will be.  Perhaps a fairy hideout,  a shop, a castle, space travel HQ or anything else the children want it to be.  That's the great thing about a den - it's versatility!  The creative play that evolves through the den play will see children take on roles,  working together to create a narrative, solve conflicts and extend their play with other props or resources.  As with the building process, this is an important time to use our judgement as educators.  Stand back and observe the play, understanding when you could extend this by adding more resources. 

Observations will help us gain a greater understanding of the play and how to extend this as well as reflecting on the learning we are seeing.  
Don't be in a rush to pack away the den at the end of the day.  If you are able to safely leave it standing, then it's great to do this so you can observe the play continue over the days that follow.  The den might be revamped, taken down by the children and rebuilt or it's use might change.  However the children use it, it's important to enable them to feel ownership over the den.  Perhaps take photos with the children to capture the moments which you can look back on later.  This helps them revisit the experiences, talking about how they built the den, what they used, what worked and what didn't and how the den was used after construction.  

Den building with children can be a very powerful experience.  Once you've done it once or twice, you'll have a better understanding of what works in your space and how you can add to your resources to address this.  

Don't forget to tag us on social media in your den building creations!

Share your outdoor play with us on our Social Channels - tag us @CosyDirect #CosyDirect in your play.


With thanks to The Cosy Creatives for this blog post and our Cosy Club Members for their input.

Image Credit: @learning_play_and_wonder