Ingredients: Any large piece of fabric (or try an army camouflage net), a kitchen table / two chairs / bunk bed, etc… and any associated paraphernalia, a Makedo set

The Big Sell: We want to make our own hide-out!

Strategy: Show me a child who HASN’T made a den? They are the staple of childhood and most adults remember the thrill of making their very own special space – for me it was up-turning the rocking chair with my sister which instantly became Cinderella’s carriage or throwing a blanket over the wooden kitchen table where we giggled in the dark peering out at adults feet threatening to invade. Why are dens so deeply exciting for children? If we were to pursue a psychoanalytic approach we would probably relate them to recapturing a womb-like experience – snuggled in a warm, dark spot. I feel there is something crucial about children regaining a feeling of power by transforming an adult dominated space, shrinking and subverting it into some hidey-hole into which only they can crawl and peer out to observe and analyze a sometimes alien world.

There are lots of versions of the den in our house, which include:

  • The common living room blanket den thrown over two chairs turned back to back, in which they gather equipment in rucksacks and use a pop-up tunnel to travel inside
  • The garden den, in which they peg a tarpaulin sheet against the trellis to form a tent-like triangle and forage for berries, leaves and insects for imaginary subsistence
  • The high-tech cardboard den in which Daddy brings home large boxes from work and we supplement with a ‘Makedo set’ (http://mymakedo.com ) creating a rather bijou much-stickered interior design.
  • The bunk bed den into which both boys camp out in the lower bed with a camouflage net tucked into the top bunk hanging down, torches and stories at the ready.

The Verdict:

When I became an art student in my twenties I became entranced by installation art which seemed different to other art forms, because it echoed this accessible childlike playful approach to reinterpreting your world. When I climbed inside Tracey Emin’s Tent (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Emin) or Ilya Kabakov’s The Red Wagon (http://www.ilya-emilia-kabakov.com/) I felt the walls of the white gallery disappear and any pretence of how I should be reacting to art dissolve, as instead my senses were heightened and engaged. Reminiscent of crawling into the rabbit-hole with Alice in Wonderland, the Tardis with Doctor Who or the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, here I was entering another world within a world – a metaphor for the imaginative potential hidden within all of us in our everyday mundanity – in which the possibilities were limitless. And isn’t that what childhood should be all about?

I have concerns about the degree to which children are allowed to feel they can create their own spaces at the moment. In the UK, youth clubs are under threat despite a wealth of research that voices young people’s need for safe, warm places to meet. I think there is potential for a link with politically-aware installation art with teens here – why stop making dens when you are six? Don’t we all continue to need to feel we can transform and lay claim over our own environment? In a few weeks, I will be starting workshops with children aged 6 – 7 in which we will use socio-dramatic play to try and invent our own worlds, and I’m hoping the walls of the classroom will melt away as we work as a group to reinvent our reality. I will be excited to report back on how this develops! In the mean time, let’s get building our own secret den…

Catchphrase: We’re going to need chocolate in here, Mum!!! You do know that Captain Scott packed chocolate when he went to Antarctica?

Left wanting more?

  • Read Russell Hoban’s fantastic Frances books and in particular ‘A Baby Sister for Frances’ published by Puffin, in which Frances runs away to under the dining room table and writes melancholy songs to deal with the jealousy of the new family arrival.
  • Try drawing an Imaginary House with your child as some special one to one time. Draw an outline of a large house on a blank sheet and then work together to fill in the floors with all the necessities – telescope in the attic, bouncy castle  room, looping tunnel from the bunk bed to the breakfast table, etc… letting your imaginations run wild together.
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