Hide Away…Building dens is a natural and important pastime in children’s social and emotional development


Building dens is a natural and important pastime in children’s social and emotional development. Anne O’Connor explores how adults can support this form of play while respecting children’s need for privacy…

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.

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 Caribbean has highlighted 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…

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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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