Rachel Wooller is a Cambridge-based studio artist who works with recycled wood and metal as well as concrete, acrylic and wire.  She is currently working on a series of floor based pieces that explore the power relation between materials.  As part of the Pathways Project, Rachel was asked to facilitate a den making project with a class of year 6 children from Wilburton Primary School.  In what follows, she describes this work.

The children were asked to think about a climate change scenario in which Wilburton flooded and they were forced to evacuate to higher ground.  They thought about ways to use both natural resources and any scavenged materials they could find or rescue, to make shelters.   The session was held in a wood in the village, a short walk away from their school.  The children had brainstormed different ways they might approach the project and they thought about floating shelters and about making shelters high up in the trees to keep out of the flood waters.

The children chose locations on slopes, near a ditch so that water would be carried away, in a tree that had a natural hollow so they could keep out of the water.  One group wound twine around two adjacent trees to create the horizontal structures they needed, before making seating backed in plastic and raised on old bottles to keep out of the water.  Another made a wood log floor, whilst a third group made a hammock in the ‘V’ between two trees.  The children were adept at using the physical features of the woodland, choosing the location of their shelters carefully and at using the trees’ natural features to form the basis of the building process.  They were remarkably able at physical making, binding materials together with string and tape and attempting to water proof their dens against future storms.

Den making was clearly a familiar activity to a lot of the children and they approached it with great verve and energy.  They were unwilling to stop at the end of the first day and disappointed that they could not leave their structures up. It was very clear to me that to make an exercise like this work, and to harness the power of this enthusiasm, it is important that the potential for learning and the links to the curriculum are carefully outlined to everyone involved.   The group became both domesticated – making themselves sofas and seating areas, doors and windows; and tribal – putting up signs to mark out territory and arguing hotly over the rights to use the cardboard sofa. One child was excluded by the ‘sofa’ group and made her own hammock in next door trees with a rather good canopy.  One of the teachers praised it as fitting the climate change brief and the whole mood of the sofa group changed and they started working together at the hammock den.  It’s fair to say that the pull of the familiar den making rather overwhelmed the climate change focus and, having made their initial choices about location and design, the children were keen to make house type structures in preference to flood-friendly designs. One group was discouraged by the behaviour of the materials; they had the great idea of making a floor from plastic bottles and then covering it with bin-bag-covered cardboard to make flood proof flooring.  They were discouraged when they found that the bottles crushed under their weight and from there concentrated rather more on traditional den building approaches.

If you asked me what the children learnt from the project, I would say that they learned less about climate change than something slightly intangible about a sense of home. As a group, they seemed to feel impelled to replicate the domestic amenities they were used to: chairs, doors, even giving the dens names – ‘Choccy Woccy Doo-da Land’, for example. We asked them how they would feel if they stayed in their dens overnight and they immediately and instinctively said that they wouldn’t want to, that they would want to go home. The idea of these shelters actually being their homes with the wildness of the woods and the absence of family, brought them closer to an understanding of losses climate change might bring than anything else that had been suggested to them. The slightness and precarious nature of the shelters the children made represents the antithesis of what we expect of home: safety, comfort, a lasting solidity. The children found the idea of exchanging the homes they know for the shelters they had built really unsettling. I had not expected that: I imagined that the power of play and its suspension of disbelief would allow the children’s imaginations to glide over the realities of what we were suggesting.

The children were asked to take their dens down on the final day, which they found difficult. They had invested a lot into the making of them and found it upsetting to pull them down so soon after making them. We decided that each group should leave a symbol or marker of their den behind, to ameliorate this sense of distress and to leave some sign of our presence in the landscape. Some groups made little wooden ‘dream catchers’ to capture the spirit of their shelters in the woods. The symbols were roughly bound sticks, forming hanging diamonds or squares, in some case decorated with ivy or grasses. I went back recently to the spot where the dens had been, and some of these symbols still remain there, in different states of decay, a tiny reminder of a temporary settlement.

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Contact: rachelwooller@gmail.com  This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.