Our Blog

Why all children benefit from making dens

By Elaine Ford, Activity Co-ordinator

When you think back to your childhood, can you envisage your most treasured spaces? Perhaps you had a cosy reading nook, a treehouse or a special place to play?

What these things have in common is that they provide an element of seclusion and privacy – a place to call one’s own.

Children’s lives can be fairly rigidly structured, and this is especially true when you or someone in your family has a life-limiting condition. With medical appointments and medication schedules to juggle alongside school and family commitments, it can feel as if there isn’t much time to just be a child.

That’s why it is so important for us to offer opportunities for play and exploration at Chestnut Tree House. We are always guided by the child, their needs and desires, but one of the activities we like to support is den-building.

Sibling event in the woodland

Developmental benefits

Building a den is beneficial in a multitude of ways. This kind of imaginative play assists with teamwork and cooperation, boosts communication and language skills, while also aiding physical development by exercising fine and gross motor skills.

The academic and educator Chris Athey introduced the theory of schemas, which has been very influential in early years practice. Watch any young child for an extended period, and you’ll usually notice repetitive behaviour and patterns in their play. For example, they may enjoy carrying smaller toys in bags or buckets or pushing dolls around in prams: this is the transporting schema. Athey’s theory is that schematic play is how children learn to understand aspects of the world.

Making dens and creating enclosed spaces is supportive of the enveloping schema and can be a magical learning experience. But most importantly, it’s fun! Children don’t need much to make a den – a sheet, a tree and some clothes pegs are a good start.

Forest Explorers siblings day

Working together

In our Woodland Walk, we have a box containing everything the children might need to build an outdoor sanctuary, including canvases, tent pegs and mallets. At our Forest Explorers session for siblings in the summer, we encouraged the children to have a go at putting up a tent and then build their own den. The whole atmosphere changed because they were working together with a joint purpose. Even the siblings weren’t squabbling!

We try to be non-directive in our approach, holding off on interventions unless we are invited to help. It builds self-worth when children see that they can do something for themselves, translating their own ideas into reality. Den-building allows children to experience challenge and risk in a safe environment.

We adapt activities according to our knowledge of that child and their abilities. What might they need help with? For example, if their fine motor skills don’t enable them to tie knots, we can encourage problem-solving to find a solution. We often find, though, that children are very good at sharing their own skillsets and helping each other out.

All-weather activity

Dens can be made anywhere, not just outdoors. We have pop-up tents that we use indoors at Chestnut Tree House and, recently, a little boy called Sam zipped himself into one for some alone time. He has two carers with him at all times, and the seclusion was clearly what he needed. If you’re at home, a clothes airer or a couple of chairs and some sheets make an effective, cosy private space. Even a simple cardboard box or a laundry basket can form the basis of a den.

Freedom to choose

Most of the children we care for have at least one-to-one care, sometimes one-to-two. It is very important that they can have that time on their own. We have one lad, George, who likes to zoom around the Woodland Walk in his motorised chair because it puts some space between him and his carers. A 10-year-old boy doesn’t want to be followed all the time. He knows we need to be able to see him, but at the same time we give him that freedom.

Our children’s wellbeing is fundamental to what we do here, and we know that experiencing nature lowers their cortisol levels. The children we care for often spend a lot of time in hospital and take a lot of medication every day. There are many aspects of their lives that they didn’t choose.

That’s why it is so important for us to give them choices in their activities, give them time to de-stress and concentrate on simply being a child.