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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.