• Family activities

Den building: family activity ideas

By The Den Kit Co

Published on 6 min read

Girl looking at leaf 

Keep the kids busy during school holidays

Den building is a rite of childhood – it’s cheap, you can do it anytime of year, it’s universal and it’s fun for all ages. Heading outside to build a den will keep the kids entertained during the school holidays. The Den Kit Co. explore the art of den building and offer some tips on how to plan a great day out.

It’s the school holidays, the weather doesn’t always play ball and you’re frantically thinking of ways to keep the kids entertained. Sound familiar? The great outdoors can be the answer to most child-related problems and it’s free – or near enough. Fresh air will not only leave you all feeling better, but it will burn off some of that energy too. Boredom, bickering, whining or glued to a screen, just get your shoes on and get outside!

Girl looking at leaf 

Kids activity ideas

Planning an outdoor adventure

Ok, so we acknowledge – you need some sort of plan. Underprepared outdoor adventures aren’t always successful and might be short-lived (although plenty of hours can be filled by boredom-prompted outdoor games, if kids are given the opportunity to be creative). You need to give a thought to your day out and make sure you pack appropriate clothing and plenty of snacks and drinks as well. Then there’s deciding where to go and what to do – which isn’t that hard with the help of OS Maps.

The basics of den building

Den building is a rite of childhood – it’s instinctive, it’s universal, it’s loads of fun for all ages. If the adults can resist taking over, 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. It’s widely known that den building helps child development, building on their independent learning and decision-making skills.

Dens can be built anywhere, from anything and be as complex as the maker is able to imagine and realise. Building a den together will spark conversation, necessitate cooperation and unify a team with an ultimate goal. As you’ve probably guessed, we’re big fans!

Kids lighting a fire

Kids lighting a fire

Top tips for outdoor den building

Dust off your observation skills and learn to work with the land for the best den encampment – nature often has what you need if you allow your imagination to roam – branches, leaves, moss, mud, straw, twigs, bark, brambles, roots, pine needles… and even nettles all become resources to build or improve your camp.

  • Trees can provide essential support for a shelter, but branches that look dead or could fall in high winds could be dangerous.
  • Flat land is going to be more comfortable to sit on than a hillside.
  • Marshy ground will get you wet, as will camping below the high tideline on a beach.
  • Look for forked sticks and branches – these are great for suspending a longer branch or rope.
  • Bendy sticks can be used to weave shelter walls, in-between a row of upright branches.
  • Once you have a structure in place, camouflage can be added using leaf litter.
  • Holding sticks together is easiest when you have some rope or fixings – but bramble and even nettles can make strong cordage too.

There are good shelters and not-so-good shelters – but there are no rules, and learning the difference, trying out new things and evolving your design is all part of the fun!

Den building in the forest

Den building in the forest

How to make den building extra fun

The best den-building expeditions incorporate exploration – whether it be somewhere you’ve never been before, or simply a new perspective offered by role-play or imaginative scenarios. Become pirates, own your own cottage or become woodland explorers. My own children are well-versed at a spontaneous call of ‘“QUICK! The water is rising! We need to build a den and protect ourselves before it reaches us!” Cue immediate and hitherto unseen cooperation between siblings as they fall on whatever equipment is to hand, building a den and scrambling in ‘for safety’. It usually falls to their Dad to get the hose out and test the waterproofing of their shelter, with them inside…

Nature of course, offers a gloriously unpredictable topography and rarely will two dens look the same. This constantly changing environment challenges den-builders, requiring them to assess, judge, test and problem-solve. A woodland setting offers huge possibilities for structures made using dead-wood, branches, leaf litter and trees – but driftwood and a blanket on a beach also works wonderfully and I’ve seen a party of 15 six-year-olds camped underneath a trampoline-with-tablecloth-skirt last over an hour before emerging (leaving the parents to tuck into the jelly and have a proper chat).

Fire on a plate kit

Fire on a plate kit

Make it a great family day out

In addition to negotiating the undulations and make-up of the land itself, den-building requires mastery of unpredictable weather – and we would urge you not to shy away from the fun that can be had in a sudden rain shower, drizzly grey skies or even an insistent breeze. As the wise saying goes – there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. Children rarely notice once they’re absorbed in the game and it can be immensely satisfying sitting out a shower under a self-made canopy.

Hungry yet? Chances are the children will be and *everyone* knows that food tastes better outdoors. A little preparation back home can translate into major parent-brownie-points at lunch time and prompt another joy-inducing, forest school moment – making a fire. We build ours on an enamel plate or stones, which contain the flames and prevents scorching. Don’t forget to check whether fires are allowed and leave no trace when you make one.

Get everyone involved in the hunt for kindling and let the kids try their hand at using a fire steel for the ultimate lesson in confidence-boosting life skills. Along with the marshmallows, bring cooked sausages – foraging for sticks to hold the food close to the hot embers – and share a flask of hot chocolate too. It’ll taste all the better for the effort made!

boy in river plates

Family days out

Extend your time outside

So, we’ve escaped the walls, explored new territories, tested our skills and challenged bodies and minds. We’ve built a shelter, sated our appetites and protected ourselves from the elements (pretend or otherwise). If new games haven’t already sprung from this atmosphere of freedom and creativity, why not suggest a spot of land art using the natural materials around you? A scavenger hunt (‘find me something beginning with ’T’ / something that’s red / something soft’)? Bug spotting? Or if a younger child is tired, cuddle up and read a story – so much more of a sensory experience outside.

School holidays sorted

It’s all ‘just play’ of course – but this is the sort of rich, inspiring, life-long-memory-inducing play that moulds us, makes us and unites us. It’s good for our bodies, our minds and it connects us to nature as well as to each other. It makes us feel good.

This school break then, dedicate at least one day to a real outdoor adventure. From inside our own dens we’ll be cheering you on – every welly-wrangling, shower-dodging, full-on glorious moment. From inside yours, be proud that your day of play will be remembered and felt for longer than it takes for the marshmallows to wear off.

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By The Den Kit Co


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