Growing up in suburban Denver, I had access to plenty of overgrown, undeveloped patches of land with climbing trees and dense shrubbery. I would spend hours outside after school, making play houses and dens around the reservoir behind our house and hiding out, watching passersby on the walking paths and imagining my dream apartment in the sky. I never had a built fort or tree house, but loved climbing and crawling into natural secret spaces - the hollows of evergreens, the canopy of leafy trees.
A few weeks ago, during our neighborhood block party, O and I wandered off to explore, and he led me straight to an opening in an evergreen shrub. He'd found a den! I'd never noticed the hollow space before, but there it was, inviting us inside. O crawled right into it and looked up through the hole in the top, which lights the gloomy interior. It's a cozy little den, but big enough for me to sit inside, too. After lingering for a moment, O crawled through the smaller hole on the other side of the space, which I had to squeeze through just to catch him before he toddled off without me.
Today, I returned to the den while O had dinner with his daddy. It's a charming little space - exactly the hideout I'd have chosen if I'd grown up in this neighborhood. I'm delighted that O discovered it himself ... and happy that I'll know where to find him when he wanders off on summer evenings to play!
Dens have been the subject of a few articles in the Children, Youth and Environments journal, which I helped establish back in 2003. Here's a link to one that is freely available - it's a paper by Maria Kylin about her research with children in Sweden and their den-making motivations and choices. It features some good photos of children's dens (click on the figure links in the article to see them). Her findings resonated with me when I first read this paper 11 years ago - particularly the children's interest in keeping their hideouts secret:
Children need to have the freedom to explore the natural terrain in their neighborhoods - whatever it may be - and to claim parts of it as their own. In doing so, they exercise their creativity and develop the necessary autonomy to form a strong identity and a healthy self-esteem. Kylin concludes her article with a plea for the preservation of natural places that invite den-making:
I feel so fortunate that my little O has already discovered a great den in our neighborhood, which is in no danger of being cut down. As he gets older, he'll be able to explore more widely, finding dens in the forests that surround us. We live in an area where planned tracts abut natural preserves, but for children in denser neighborhoods with more manicuring, finding these special, secret hideaways can be more of a challenge. As long as a little wild is allowed to creep into the city - and as long as those unmanicured spaces are safely, freely accessible - children will always find ways to claim their creative space.