Den Building

18 September 2013 · 10 comments

in Outdoor Play, Technologies

What’s your idea of a den?

I work largely in tarmac playgrounds and school grounds which often have few trees suitable for den building. The dens I see children build tend to be reliant on boxes, lattice tunnels and attached to fences or a line of rope tied between a couple of trees or posts. Occasionally even a pile of tyres suffices to create a one-person’s private space.

CP Dens

Recently, I was introduced to the den building at Community Playthings. On their East Sussex site, the children from their community school take den building very seriously. The dens are not taken down at the end of a session in the woods. They are ongoing works of technological art which are continuously refined and improved upon. There is time and space to work away on their structures.

CP Dens 6

What is clear, is that these children know how to wield a hammer and use other tools well. Pieces of wood have been carefully selected and clear design features are emerging. Check out the deluxe seat below: air slats, hinges and freedom to choose the angle of the back support. I feel such an amateur by comparison. I’m proud if I procure a stump or two!

CP Dens 7

The use of unwanted bits of wood is evident. The planks have knot holes and have been passed on from a local joiner. There’s a mishmash of chipboard, plywood and bits removed from old furniture. It’s a great example of repurposing in action. I think this sort of free play is a fine way to practice joinery skills.

CP Dens 5

The children who build these dens are aged roughly between 8-10 years. It is part of their summer play in the woods. On another part of the campus,  the children have their own vegetable gardens, where they get to decide what vegetables to grow and how to manage their plot. It is lovely to see how free play, education and community action are merged into a holistic experience for the children.

CP Dens 4

The social nature of these dens speak volumes. Although each den has a clear territory and many have fences in varying stages of completion around them, you can see there’s a lot of visiting and socialising. All the dens are close to each other. It’s like a little community.

CP Dens 3

The question which immediately springs to mind, is how transferable this sort of den building project is to other ventures. Many adventure playgrounds offer opportunities to use tools and wood in their play, so the concept is not new. I’ve heard of a site in Germany where children can hire a structure for one month at a time. During this time, a child is free to create their den or other structure. To obtain nails, then old ones must first be extracted and swapped.  Now that’s an enterprising approach to sustainable resource use!

CP Dens 2

 The building of dens goes beyond childhood. Reforesting Scotland have an amazing campaign called A Thousand Huts which has raised the profile of hutting at a national level in the Scottish Parliament. What doesn’t surprise me, though, is that Community Playthings produce such high quality furniture. After all, if you’ve spent your childhood building dens like these, your knowledge and understanding of furniture product design will be well-honed by adulthood.

Finally many thanks to Helen Huleatt and the Community Playthings Community for making me feel so welcome during my visit. You may enjoy finding out more about their work through their popular blog.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna September 18, 2013 at 18:11

What an amazing place, I love the intricate detail on the sloping roofed one.


Juliet Robertson September 18, 2013 at 18:16

Yes, I do too! What I didn’t mention in the post itself is that these dens are the children’s own work – self-directed, child-initiated. As Community Playthings make furniture for schools and pre-school settings, the children do have access to wood. Also I think a local joiner also donated the wood he can’t use.


Pam Tennant September 18, 2013 at 20:06

Wow…truly amazing. This reminds me of my years as a child growing up in Denmark. We lived next door to a boy who was a couple of years older than me. His Dad was a joiner and gave him loads of odds and ends of wood, an endless supply of nails and a hammer. This young boy (about 10-12) would build the most amazing structures of spaceships, and cars and two levelled dens. I was incredibly jealous and desperate to have that kind of freedom to ‘build’ and ‘create’ (my British parents were not as comfortable with their young daughter wielding a hammer and nails. This feeling lasted with me throughout my childhood and early adult life – actually it is still with me….the desire to build things myself! On that note, I was den building with my 3 year old in our back garden today, for the first time!!! And I will give him a hammer and nails, soon – very soon! (although today was with branches from a tree we were thinning out last night). I hope he can grow up experiencing the ‘forest schools/outdoor learning/managing own risk’ philosophy. Keep up the good work!


Juliet Robertson September 19, 2013 at 07:21

What a lovely memory. I had a book of carpentry and I used to droole over the kids projects in the book! Especially the guide to making a ladder!


andrew r September 19, 2013 at 06:54

Another call for a Tinkering School in Scotland.


Juliet Robertson September 19, 2013 at 07:21

Yes Andrew! I completely agree!


Tom Bedard September 19, 2013 at 12:25

Your question of how to transfer the den building to other ventures got me thinking: Can we do some den building inside the classroom? I will let you know if anything comes of it.


Juliet Robertson September 19, 2013 at 12:50

Thanks Tom – I look forward to the blog post. Will duct tape and cardboard feature, I wonder!


Beatriz September 19, 2013 at 20:38

Very interesting and inspiring pictures. Thank you!


Coombe Mill - Fiona September 22, 2013 at 19:36

I love this! What a great experience for the children, it gives them the opportunity for great team work and learn how to handle tools and be creative. So many schools would benefit from having great outdoor areas where children could have the chance work on their practical skills. Thanks for linking up and sharing with Country Kids.


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