ADG Architecture Design Graphics Plymouth Exeter Devon Cornwall South West

Dens aren’t just for kids, are they?

During the last 13 months those of us with younger kids, say under the age of 10 or so, may well have been spending a lot of our time conjuring up ways to keep them amused, either indoors or in the garden. As a child I remember spending a lot of my time constructing dens with my younger brother, either indoors using the bunk beds or dining table as the base structure, or outside in the garden or woods. I clearly remember creating sun-dried ‘bricks’ from the clay dug from our garden and constructing what must have looked like a machine-gun emplacement with a crude roof of broom handles and blankets. This was our hedgehog monitoring hide. For myself it seemed like a natural thing to encourage my kids to do, but on reading around the subject of den building it seems like this might be generational, and something that is dying out.

Den building allows children the ability to create their own defensible space, to have power over and shape their own piece of the world. Old school Minecraft. This is of course just part of the process, occupying their den provides the opportunity for role play, for contemplative space, to create something that is ‘theirs’, a non-adult zone. I left my son and daughter with a pile of boxes, tape and scissors last year and they constructed a kind of child-sized hamster city. But I was most amused by the decoration that instructed adults to keep out. This was unprompted by either myself or my wife, it seems that the process of building a structure naturally embeds it with a high level of personal ownership. This does not seem to be the case with an ‘off the shelf’ tepee or playhouse. Where is the fun in that, when the work has been done for you, plus, is that what the child views as their ideal, or what we as parents want to see because of our own aesthetic sensitivities?

Children see the world differently to us because their understanding of what is best is not based upon a learned aesthetic ideal, it’s based upon what they can do in a space or structure, it’s the ‘doing’ that is important. Let’s face it, a child would never invent the high-heeled shoe, not when crocs are quicker to deploy, and wellies allow you to jump in muddy puddles. Similarly, as designers we try to design out the very stuff that kids find interesting and fun, for sensible health and safety reasons, ease of maintenance, cost and aesthetic convention. To children the spaces that we think are exemplary, that appear on the magazines of architectural publications, must simply appear dull, boring and bare.

So, for kids why is den building so important? The process provides various levels of personal growth and learning. The very process of learning how to make something stand up takes time, requires understanding of basic structural principles and imagination, to use objects for purposes other than for what they were intended, and this is something that, it seems to me, children are way ahead of adults on. It also allows children to play at being adults themselves, to make the rules, have their own say and be able to take control. With larger ventures it provides the basis for intergenerational learning, passing-on of knowledge from grandfather to father to son. This of course also allows the adult to relive their childhood once more!

I was interested to understand whether den building is something that is innate to us all. The further reading I have done, based upon studies of children since the 1970s, suggests that this is not the case, to my great disappointment. I always considered the creation of shelter to be inbuilt within us, a deep-set need to create safety from the elements, other humans and the natural world. But many of us live in a world where this is taken for granted, it’s not a necessity and hence we don’t automatically play at it either. Research also suggests that parents are too paranoid to allow their kids out into the woods, or maybe too worried about their homes or gardens being made untidy or trashed. Do kids know how to use tools and how often do they come into contact with them?

And here comes the further dilemma, if our kids don’t see that they have the ability to shape their own part of the world, then as adults, aren’t they likely to simply follow suit? The ‘off the shelf’ tepee becomes the ‘off the shelf’ home – box ticked.

The adult version of the den is of course ‘self-build’ and comes in a multitude of forms, but essentially, it’s the process of creating or procuring a home that is not simply a speculative new build nor existing ‘ready to go’ house. This does not mean that you literally have to get your hands muddy and spend several years crafting the thing yourself. Much like the child enlisting the skills of a parent to build a den, it can involve the separate purchase of land and procurement of a design team, or package provider, to help you to deliver your dream.

The child den-builders of the past would hopefully also become the construction professionals of the future. The industry still has its work cut out to attract school leavers as it’s often not viewed as providing vocations that are interesting, glamorous or lucrative in the way that IT and computing is. If we give our kids the chance to build and make things they usually will, that’s the reason why Lego continues to be such a popular toy and such big business. This is because there is something fundamentally rewarding about creating spaces and places, however simple or temporary.

Dale's experience spans a wide range of project sectors, sizes and stages and has particular interests in environmental design and earth-sheltered construction. His favourite projects reuse and breathe new life into under-loved existing buildings.

dale.beeson@architects-adg.co.uk