My ‘office’ during lockdown consists of our kitchen island for my beloved MacBook, and an old wooden school stool as my seat. I have easy access to the kettle (and fridge, dammit) and am surrounded by the evolving tide of my three children’s play.
From the cupboards they ransack games and resources - and our two zones collide as my mug of tea is encapsulated in a lego tower, an email ping reminds me it’s time for Joe Wicks, my lap contains a ‘poorly’ bear that needs comforting. We are cohabiting in relative harmony (rules in place are few, but absolute, and include NO DRINKS NEAR MUMMY’S LAPTOP - hence the lego tower, ingeniously constructed to prohibit tipping).
Though the landscape around me is constantly changing depending on the project and current play objective, one constant is the presence of a den. We’ve always built dens, ever since our eldest was old enough to sit up and manipulate those foam jigsaw floor mat pieces around him, to create a cocoon he could peek out of (and chew). It’s surely an innate and universal desire - to create a private, safe space in which we are protected and, crucially, in control of. Who, in a house shared with their children hasn’t wished for *that* during lockdown?
Our youngest, aged three, builds indoor dens daily - out of cushions, towels, coats or whatever she can get her sticky mitts on. Over the past year, as her sense of ‘self’ has developed, these forts have become more important - they offer her a sanctuary and self-imposed boundaries. We leave them until she is ready to abandon.
Our boys share a bedroom. At school, they’re in the same class. They don’t get much of a break from one another - especially at the moment. So we (ok, it was my husband) built them a little cabin-den each - cleverly created as part of their bookshelf and wardrobe. They have a retreat to climb into for reading and thinking and escaping - though to be honest, when the red mist falls, or they feel upset, they tend towards stomping outdoors.
The very best dens then for our wildlings, are those we make outside. As the days and weeks of lockdown progress, these outdoor retreats become bigger, more creative and elaborate. They begin to invite each other inside - an indication of a new-found unity between them that represents for me one of the very best results of the past 3 months (disclaimer: this harmony is interspersed with regular and enthusiastic spats unless you think I’m raising robots). The dens have been ships, nature hides, army encampments, insect hotels, hospitals and ‘yoga zones’. They’ve taught STEM skills, ignited imaginations, hidden contraband and been the epicentre of a whole lot of glorious noise and laughter.
So, what I am saying? Firstly, that den-building is a rite of childhood - it’s instinctive, it’s universal, it’s fun. It’s a child-led activity that offers comfort, security and control to children who feel that they need it - and is a source of triumph for those who relish a test of physical and mental agility. Dens can be built anywhere, from anything, and be as complex as the maker is able to imagine and realise. We can personalise them - keep our special things inside. Access is by invitation only - and those allowed inside must enter the owner’s world.
Mine would be in dappled sunlight and scented with sweet peas - with a blanket and a pillow and the sound of birdsong. Oh, but drinks and snacks… am I allowed a fridge?
We all need a space to call our own. Everyone needs a den.
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