When I work as a dramatherapist in a primary school, den making is one of my most used resources. A bag full of fabric and a good collection of clothes pegs can transform any room into a castle, a forest cave, a mansion or a tree house.
Sometime the den is the main therapeutic activity – taking time to create a space which is just for them. A space which is safe. Decorated in the colours they chose and containing the small toys they brought inside to be with them. Just like Elmo’s den in this video.
Sometimes in a group, each member will create their own den and then visit each other. Sometimes they will work together to create one big den or to connect up their mini dens with secret passages.
“Children build castles because children build boundaries, and what we build or have demolished as children remains our foundation for life, like the raised earth mounds of Iron Age forts.”Siddons Heginworth, Ian. (2008). Eat Me: Environmental Arts Therapy and the Tree of Life. Exeter: Spirit’s Rest Books. Page 102
Some dens become part of a story – this is Harry Potter’s castle or Rapunzel’s Tower or the Power Ranger’s House – the place where the story starts and also a place to return and reflect in role if the story becomes tricky to face or gets stuck.
At a children’s holiday club this year I was in charge of the time out tent where any child could come if they wanted some time away from the games and crafts. Some children came into the tent wanting to talk about all the things they liked to do, other children came in wanting to hide under the cushions for a while. There was water and colouring in activities within the tent or sometimes we could just sit together and breath deeply. They could stay for as long or as short a time as they wanted before returning to the group. Sometimes we could help them to resolve whatever had prompted them to seek the safety of the tent – to talk about how feelings were hurt or what had made them feel frustrated or left out. For other children it was a space where they could relax if they did not wish to join the current activity. Mostly, the tent stayed empty for the week but when it was used I saw how valuable the safe place to escape to was for the children.
But dens are not just for children. I remember another dramatherapist telling me how she created a den in her home as that was the space where she could be most productive when writing up a piece of therapy research. Her den was a place with no distractions where she could take time to reflect and process what she needed to write.
Recently I also had a chance to make a den during one of my own therapy sessions, using the fabric to make a space for me as part of my own self care. I have seen the impact den making has had for my clients but this was the first time I had used it as a client; I was really taken aback by how powerful this was. Taking time to build this physical representation of what I wanted. Thinking about where I wanted to place myself within the space. Moving around the space and reflecting on the different emotions and feelings I was processing.
There is verse from the Bible which says:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me1 Corinthians 13:11
I think this sentiment is shared in much of our society, we are encouraged to grow up, to stop playing, to be sensible. Sometimes there is freedom and power in picking up the tools from our childhood and seeing what they can show us now.