Den building enables young children to create a space which is private

Seb (three years 11 months) and Chelsea (four years two months) have made a den outside. Seb is the ‘dad’, but Chelsea wants to be the ‘little girl’ and wonders who will be the ‘mum’? Seb suggests that the mum has died and they go inside the den, talking about how they will manage.

Chelsea then becomes the dying mum and suggests that the dad should work as a doctor so he can look after her. Seb, however, would rather be a policeman. They talk for a while about dead people.

Chelsea suggests using Seb’s plastic tube as a stethoscope. He pretends to listen to her heartbeat. He tells her he can’t hear it and that he is going off to catch a ghost. He invites her to come too, but she reminds him that she can’t because she is dead. He tells her she can’t be because she is still talking. Then the two of them chat about how they built the den themselves and how lovely it would be to eat their dinner inside it.

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Watch this clip as part of the early years clip library. Sign up for your 30 day free trial and start watching today. Or keep scrolling and read more about the benefits of den building. You can download the full article at the bottom of the page. It was written by Anne O'connor and published in Nursery World.

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Good Practice

1. Building and playing inside dens is a common feature of play and, for children, there is something very powerful about creating an enclosed private space.

In such spaces, children can play pretend games and reflect on important experiences, worries and anxieties, all of which is extremely beneficial to a child’s emotional well-being.

Extensive research in Scandinavia, the United States, Great Britain and the Carribean has high lighted the importance of the den-building experience in children’s social and emotional development. Unfortunately, it also notes that children today are increasingly less likely to be allowed the freedom and opportunity to play unsupervised outdoors in ‘wilderness’ spaces, and if they have a den at all, it is more likely to be a manufactured one, bought for them by their parents.

By providing the space, resources and time to experiment, early years settings can do much to encourage and foster children’s interests in making dens.

2. Research into children’s den-building has shown that children are naturally driven to modify their landscape and to define a space that is private – although more often than not, shared with one or two friends – and hidden from view.

Outdoors, children seek out bushes, pits and natural structures as starting points for constructions and ‘houses’ in which they can sit or play.

Very often, the construction and building of the den is as important for the children as the play that takes place inside. Collecting things to go inside the den is also an important element of the experience.

Den-building happens indoors too – under tables, behind sofas and, perhaps best of all, with the traditional wooden clothes horse.

3. Young children may well appreciate adult involvement in constructing a den, particularly technical help in securing it, but avoid taking over and building your own grand design.

Some children will be keen to involve adults in their den play, but you should respect the private nature of these special places too.

  • Provide books, paper, crayons and pens for children to make the most of the quiet creative space.
  • Dens are temporary by design, but think about ways of enabling children to maintain, extend and refine their dens wherever possible.
  • Making ‘keep out’ notices and other signs is an essential part of den- making, so provide the resources and support for children to make lots of them.

4. When considering den building opportunities in your setting, view your environment from a child’s perspective:

  • Are there spaces, corners, nooks and crannies that lend themselves to den-making?
  • Can you remove the doors from a low-level cupboard to make an interesting space for children to climb into?
  • What can you add to make the space more special? Try adding a few cushions and some books, soft toys, mirrors, musical instruments.

Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World ©

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