Today I have been at the National Early Years’ Conference, ‘A Life Beyond Plastic’ , an event organised by the Totem Pole , a unique Early Years training centre in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The whole day explored the benefits of giving young children real experiences.

Early Years consultant and trainer Mary Barlow explains: “In our manufactured world adults and children use plastic objects every day. These are very similar in many ways – they are often smooth and have no smell or taste.”

“By offering a wide range of objects that are not plastic – even something as simple as a bottle top or a fir cone – we enrich children’s learning by giving them open-ended experiences.”

Mary Barlow is the owner of the Totem Pole and an inspirational trainer. I had the fortune of being trained by her myself 7 years ago and her skilful facilitation of the High/Scope approach has had a huge and lasting impact on my practice. We have worked together many times over the years, co-developing and delivering training. More recently, I invited Mary to be an external partner of Fulbridge National School of Creativity and St Mary’s Change School where she has supported Reception Teachers and Creative Practitioners to develop a child centred creative approach in each setting.

My background as a creative practitioner is rooted in the early years. Highlights have included working as an Artist in Residence at Staniland Nursery in Boston, delivering training for Lincolnshire County Council’s Birth to Five Service and working with parents and children at SureStart centres across Lincolnshire. As well as the High/Scope approach, I have been inspired by the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia.

Today I have led a couple of breakout sessions creating tempoary environments; we have been den building! This is the reason for this post. The structure of our den was created in a very prescriptive way and introduced as an adult group activity. The idea was to create a frame, which if used in an early years setting, could be presented to the children as a space for them to develop through active learning experiences.

In the past this has been an effective activity to introduce the idea of developing spaces within a setting that respond to children’s interests but there has always been a downside! I tend to avoid instruction sheets as everyone has a different learning style and what makes sense to me doesn’t necessarily seem like logic to others! So here lies the challenge that I set myself today. I wanted to see if I could collaborate with the workshop participants to develop a set of mutually agreed instructions that could be posted here for all to access. The results are below and I am very grateful to Janet who volunteered to be our scribe.

To create a den you will need:

25 x 4 foot sturdy garden canes

50 plastic coated paperclips

Masking tape

Strong string


Lengths of lightweight fabric, curtains etc.


Unfold the paperclips into an ‘S’shape then attach one to each end of the canes with masking tape.  The paperclip should make a small loop, not a hook.

Lay 3 canes on the floor and arrange them into a triangle, tie each of the three corners together with string, leaving the string long.  Then attach the other two canes to one corner of the triangle (this will now be known as the top). You need to make five of these shapes.

By sliding the shapes on the floor, move and assemble them to make a pentagon (five sided shape) by pushing the bottom side of each triangle together. Then tie each of the corners of the pentagon together securely with the string.

Lift the point of the triangle off the floor and move one of the moveable canes to the left and attach it to the top of the adjacent triangle, with string.

Then lift the last of the moveable canes towards the centre, making a roof for the structure and tie them securely together with the string.

You can now add the magic and decorate your structure. Enjoy and have fun!!!! 

 If you attended today’s sessions you might be interested in the following blogs written by artists working with Reception aged children using a range of artforms:

Sarah Wakeford, Ian Etheridge, Rosie Ward, Gizella Kate Warburton.

If you are intending to do some den building in your setting, please report back by leaving a comment. I would love to hear how you and your children have developed your ideas, (Click on the speech bubble under the title of this post to open a comments box).

If you came to one of my sessions and didn’t experience Mark Whelan’s Forest School’s session, you might like to check out his website and his latest adventure St Georges Preparatory School.