Being in a small, enclosed space can feel fun and exciting for children and adults alike and can also be comforting, calming and decrease anxiety. Spending time in a den together can be a lovely way to share a sense of connection and togetherness. A den can be a special place that you playfully hide in together, or it can be a cosy space of refuge where you escape the outside world for a while. Making a den also allows you to create a temporary change of scenery and adjust your surroundings for the current mood or atmosphere wanted.
- Do not leave a person in the den unattended for any amount of time.
- Test the structure of your den to ensure that it is secure and will not collapse.
- If the den causes any distress, support the person to leave immediately.
What you need
Dens can easily and inexpensively be created with materials and objects you already have. Depending on where you want to create the den, what size you want it to be and whether you want it to be temporary or more robust to be reusable – choose a selection from the following:
- Sheets, throws, blankets, any large pieces of fabric
- Chairs, tables, furniture, clothes airers, etc. to create a frame that fabric can be draped over to make a low-level den
- Clips, pegs, string or tape for fastening as required
- Cushions, pillows, blankets for comfort if you are to be down on the floor
- A pop-up tent is an easy way to create an instant den space – but take care, these can be tricky for many to access because of the small low opening. You may be able to overcome this problem by removing part of the floor so that you can bring the tent down over the top of you both instead.
- An umbrella can make a good basis for a den for someone who is more comfortable remaining in their wheelchair. Peg some light fabric loosely around the bottom of the umbrella, or drape it over the top if the fabric is big enough. Sit on a chair next to the person in their wheelchair and hold the umbrella up so that the trailing fabric goes around you both. A garden umbrella is great for this because it has a wider canopy and longer pole that can be supported by the floor (instead of your arms).
- You can also create a den-like space over a bed by using a ceiling hook or the bed frame/headboard, or there are a variety of canopies and bed tents available commercially.
Be aware that blankets or thick materials can make a small space feel hot and ‘airless’. Light materials offer more airflow and are also easier to fix up. Consider the need for materials to be fire retardant, especially if using lights. This experience may not be suitable for someone who does not like being in small spaces.
Guidance and instructions
- Involve the person in choosing the materials used to make your den as much as they can and would like to be.
- Design should be individualised to meet the person’s needs and preferences. Think about whether you want your den to offer a quiet, peaceful refuge or a stimulating, playful space. Plain, muted colours will probably be more calming than bright, jazzy fabrics.
- Do you want your den to be darker than the outside area? Torches and portable lights can be fun in a darkened den. The fabric ceiling and walls can make the screens for a light show. But if you don’t want it dark, even fine fabrics that let in plenty of light (like netting or voile) can still create the sense of being inside a special place.
- Introduce and enter slowly to give time to process and adjust to the change in surroundings.
- Think about positioning, proximity to one another and what the person can see from where they are.
- Be alert at all times for any indication that the person would like to leave, or have the covering removed.
- A special space, can offer a space to simply “be” and be together without being busy and distracted by the many things that need to be done during a day. Make sure you experience “being” inside the den alongside the person you are supporting before rushing to offer more. Use the space for just being together before adding additional sensory experiences to find out what benefits time together in the den may bring.
- Pay attention to background noise and any impact this may have.
- If you start to introduce additional sensory experiences, be aware of sensory overload and make adjustments or abandon them if necessary.
- You can set the tone with your voice and also with a piece of music that conveys the mood you want to create if you think that will help the person you are supporting.
- If you are on the floor in your den, you might want to think about different floor surfaces. Cushions and blankets suggest a restful comforting space, whereas a floor covered in scrunched-up paper or items that make a noise when nudged by arms or legs will provide opportunities to explore making sounds.
- People with visual impairment may be able to sense the atmosphere created by a den. The den will change the surrounding sound and your voice can convey the fun, conspiratorial nature of hiding together!
- Individuals with cortical visual impairment (CVI) who appear to have no functional vision may respond to a single colour den. Try using a bright single colour, for example red or yellow (go to https://littlebearsees.org for more information about CVI and colour).
- You could support the person to choose an aroma to make the den smell nice.
- If it’s safe to do so, try being on the outside (somewhere you can see the person at all times) while the person you support is on the inside. You can be audible but not visible, or visible through a peephole. You can move around and make sounds from different locations around the den. You can shine a light, or make shadows if the person you support can see these.
- Time in the den can be part of a daily or weekly routine or offered at times that you observe the person you care for seems to benefit from it. If it becomes a regular offering, consider using an object of reference to demonstrate what is about to happen. Try to choose something that is a meaningful cue (or might become meaningful over time) to the person you support for the den experience.
- Let the person know, in the way that they understand best, when time in the den is coming to an end, and leave slowly ensuring that the contrast of light is not too great when they first exit.
- Give as much time as necessary to adjust before moving on to the next activity.
What to observe, assess and record
- How the person is before they go in the den, during and after?
- Reactions to being in the den
- Are there visible signs of calming or enlivening?
- What is enjoyed, not enjoyed to inform what is offered next time.
- Is the person you support more engaged with you in a small space with less distractions? Does the den provide you an opportunity to give your full attention, with less distractions?
- Reactions to coming out of the den
- Changes in facial expression, body language and posture, breathing rate, skin colour and pallor and all vocal and non-vocal communication.
- When is offering time in the den again a good idea?
- Over the weeks or months, does spending time in a den appear to have any benefits?
© Dr Jill Goodwin, PhD
Dr Julie Calveley, PhD, BSc(Hons) Psychology, Registered Nurse Learning Disabilities, NAC Director
Email: [email protected]
Created February 2021