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Frequently asked questions

Q1. Why is the Forestry Commission interested in children building dens?

A1. Building dens and shelters is something that we have all done as children and helps us to create a bond with nature.  We want to encourage children to get out into the outdoors and building dens in the woods is an activity that children can enjoy and take part in.

Q2. Why are woods and forests the best place for this activity?

A2. Woods are full of natural materials such as fallen branches, leaves and bracken and so are just great places to build dens.

Q3. Do you offer guidance to children and their parents on how to build a safe den?

A3. Most children don’t need guidance on how to build a den - they just do it.  But we have produced a simple guide on what to do to make sure that dens are safe. Our den building events seek to make children more aware of their natural environment, and be aware of any dangers and risks, so that they are equipped to play safely.  We have also produced guidance for our managers so that they can assess what makes a den safe or dangerous. Our work on dens is part of the progressive role with the play agenda, seeking to encourage independent and challenging play, to make sure children keep active but safe, and encourage the use of their fertile imaginations.

Q4. What happens if a child is hurt while building a den?

A4. Bumps and bruises are part of growing up and learning about risk and danger but it is very unlikely that a child will be badly hurt building a den.  Part of the play agenda work we are involved in is about equipping and preparing children with knowledge about their natural environment and encouraging play where children are able to make their own judgements on risk and on the impact of their behaviour on the environment around them. The Forestry Commission has a good safety track record, and carries out risk assessments on all activities undertaken;  we record and investigate any serious accidents very thoroughly.

Q5. How many children have been hurt? Has anyone ever died?

A5. We do not have any records of any serious accidents from building dens.

Q6. Will they be supervised?

A6. We run shelter-building events for schools and families where the children are supervised but we also hope that many children will be able to get out and build there own dens by themselves. We make it clear that as long as they make their parents or guardians are aware of what they are doing and where, and they follow the lessons learnt there is very little risk in den-building.

Q7. Are rangers briefed on the risks? Or trained in first aid?

A7. Yes, our rangers would complete a risk assessment for den-building events and there would always be a first aider present in case of an accident.

Q8. Doesn’t this encourage children to take unnecessary risks? Perhaps sleeping out overnight – risks from environment and strangers.

A8. The important thing is to be aware of the risks.  And part of all our den building events are about ensuring children think through any dangers or risks, and are more aware of how to relate to their local environment. We are not actively encouraging sleeping out at night although young people often do.  Environmental risks are very low, with cold and wet weather being the biggest issue. The risk from strangers in a woodland is very low indeed.

Q9. What if they use hazardous materials? Might they come across sharp metal or asbestos?

A9. We remove any hazardous materials if we find them in our woodlands, and our events cover the right and safe materials to use.

Q10. What if the shelter collapses on to the inhabitants? Will dens be destroyed by rangers if they become unstable?

A10. You cannot rule out the possibility that a den will collapse, although generally materials used would be fairly lightweight and unlikely to cause harm.  If we see dens that are likely to cause an injury if they collapse we would knock them down.

Q11. Are they encouraged to use tools? Won’t this be dangerous?

A11. Children may use tools on a led event under supervision but there is no real need to use tools to build a den.

Q12. What if they dig tunnels?

A12. As long as they are not causing environmental damage small hollows are not a concern.  Our rangers would destroy any deep tunnels that could cause harm if they collapsed.

Q13. What if children build dens alongside busy roads, or near to water?

A13. Part of our risk assessment process is to look at the site hazards.  Not all water is dangerous, but if the water presents a particular danger or the den site may encourage use of a very busy road, we would try and move the den building to a better site. Our events cover within the safety briefing the issue of safe locations to build dens. It is important children are aware of the environment around them, and are able to make judgements and weigh up factors like that.

Q14. How high is too high for a tree house - a den on legs?

A14. We think tree houses over 2m need to have railings or walls to prevent children from falling off. This is based on guidance set out on our Play Pages.

Q15. Won’t the dens be used for anti-social behaviour by teenagers? Don’t they encourage litter, drugs, sex, fires etc?

A15. Our den buidling events can help children and young people to enjoy and respect the outdoors and may help to reduce this sort of antisocial behaviour. Anti-social use of dens is less likely in well-used areas but our rangers would check for evidence of drug or other activities and try to move the den to a better site away from any anti-social behaviour.

Q16. Are the dens a fire hazard?

A16. Not in themselves though the material they are built from may be flammable.  

Q17. Does den building damage the environment of the forest? E.g. using live branches

A17. This is another important consideration and we would not encourage den-building on very sensitive environmental sites. Woodlands are usually robust environments and we would encourage the use of dead rather than live material. Part of the sessions are about using woodland responsibly and understanding the environment around you and all that it offers you for shelter and fun.   In some areas we may provide material for den building to prevent damage to the living plants and trees.

Q18. Won’t it disturb other users of the forest?

A18. We monitor use to ensure that it does not disturb other visitors.  In general, the children do not want their den too close to other uses anyway.

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