Given nothing but a tarpaulin, some rope, and a billhook, Kay Miller – one half of the founding duo of the Den Kit Company – didn’t just McGuyver her way to creating shelter for the night during her Forest School teacher-training, but lit the spark of the inspiration that has since seen her go on to become a favoured name among the toy shelves up and down the UK.
Having started her journey as a headteacher working in the Primary school sector, Miller was more aware than most of the opportunities that outdoor play lent to children, and how, more often than not, the natural environment provided them the best kind of classroom of all. It was that school of thought that went on to set the foundations of the Den Kit Company, a children’s outdoor adventure kit that, over the course of the UK’s lockdown period, has found business to be booming.
A company that initially sold only locally at shows and school fairs, the Den Kit Co.’s range of 23 different kits for kids now find themselves on the shelves of National Trust shops across the UK, in The Eden Project’s gift shop, in Fenwicks, Kew Garden, and an ever-increasing selection of garden centres.
Here, ToyNews catches up with Miller to talk about venturing into the wild, and the opportunities that lockdown has presented to children and families in finding new terrain to explore.
Hi Kay, can you tell us about Den Kit Company? How did this all get started for you two?
Jo Jones and I (both mums) worked in the Primary school sector. I was headteacher and Jo worked in Early Years as an art teacher. As educators it was always evident that, given the opportunity, most children thrive in an outdoor, natural environment-the best classroom of all. We loved nurturing young imaginations and were constantly amazed by the capacity of a young child’s brain for problem-solving, challenge and innovation in play.
Passionate about the benefits of outdoor play and concerned about the over-prescriptive nature of ‘creative’ gifts for children, we toyed with the idea of starting a company to redress the balance.
At about this time (2006) we introduced Forest School to Shropshire – a movement we were, and still are, huge advocates of. An element of our Forest School teacher-training entailed being given a tarpaulin, some rope and a billhook and being told to build a shelter to sleep in overnight.
This activity had a profound impact on me. Waking up in the morning, having survived in my hand-built shelter was intensely rewarding and struck an essential chord within me – it felt primeval and empowering. The Den Kit was born.
We sold locally initially at shows and school fairs and then took a huge plunge and, holding our breath, booked a stand at the Country Living Christmas Fair in Islington . From this we were invited to audition for a place on the TV series High Street Dreams – which turned out to provide us with an invaluable launch pad.
Since then we have increased our product offer and now have 23 original products, designed and made by us here in the UK, all focused on imagination, innovation and creativity in an outdoor natural environment. In the last two years we have resigned from our teaching jobs, moved into premises, appointed two brilliant directors, attended an Aston University Business Growth course – and the business is flying.
We supply: The National Trust, Woodland Trust, Eden Project, Fenwicks, Jaguar Landrover, Kew Gardens, English Heritage, Wetland Trusts, Forest Holidays, Kidly, Crown Estates, Burford Garden Centre and many other great shops. Our own website is one we are proud of, and we have a wonderful following of loyal customers who show and tell us how important our kits are to them.
What is it that Den Kit Company brings to the children’s play and development space?
The promise of a hand-crafted space in which to set up a temporary retreat is tempting to children (and adults) of all ages, with little or no previous den-building experience. No plastic, no batteries, no complicated instructions – our aim is to encourage inclusive, simple, unadulterated fun.
While our Den Kits appeal to children’s natural sense of adventure, they are also an effective teaching tool. Unencumbered by adult intervention, children are free to explore their own creative talents for problem solving, critical thinking and ingenuity. Regular outdoors play will engender a respect for the natural environment, force children to adapt and deal with change, offer multi-sensory experience and help them to gain a sense of mastery.
So what is the company ethos and why is this such an important one to promote?
To inspire wonder and intrigue in the next generation through creative, fun and unprescribed outdoor play.
So much multi-disciplinary evidence is emerging about the benefits and importance of outdoor, unprescribed play for children. Outdoor play offers the necessary environment in which children can thrive. It is a compelling and natural activity, promoting cognitive, physical, social & emotional well-being and developing positive self-esteem, autonomy, and confidence. Through play, children can experiment, solve problems, think creatively, cooperate with others – gaining a deeper knowledge about themselves and the world in which they live.
A lot of evidence points towards a changing mind-set of the consumer and families – brought on by the pandemic and lockdown period – as to the importance of outdoor play and their investment in it. Is this reflective of your own experiences?
Definitely. In many ways I think we have all taken the access to outdoor space for-granted in the past. Lock-down highlighted the strong, compelling need that children (and adults) have for just ‘being’ in a natural environment, and the many benefits it has upon out mental and physical health.
We found that parents were desperate for absorbing activities to get their children off screens and out into the garden or, where permitted, local green space activities. Our children were missing playmates, and the familiarity of school, and needed stimulating activities where their involvement level was high, they were experiencing the joy of connecting with their natural environment and they just needed a mug of hot chocolate and some sandwiches to keep them going.
Without school, clubs, prescribed activities, play dates and entertainment amenities – we were left with our gardens or single walk each day. Spring saw glorious sunny weather, and we believe many parents saw for the first time that their children didn’t need the full timetable. They just needed an open door and their innate curiosity.
How has business been for Den Kit Company this year?
Business has been good – we’ve been one of the lucky businesses that has thrived throughout the pandemic.
We continue to grow rapidly as we get our message out and have a steady increase of retailers joining us on our mission to get children outdoors more. We have also found an increasing interest in the sustainability of our products as new start-up retailers, with the remit of eco-sustainable-no-single-use plastic, are burgeoning. Buyers both B2B and B2C are looking for activity based, sustainable, re-usable, open-ended toys.
How do you think the pandemic will shape audiences and your business going forward?
Optimistically we believe this trend will continue. The evident need to focus on our children’s well-being and that of our planet is here to stay.
We want people to remember what nature did for them during lockdown, and not to forget or neglect it as the world slowly returns to ‘normal’. We’d love people to visit our website, or come and join us over on Instagram – we share lots of nature-inspired, seasonal activities in our monthly blog and love to shout-out about other great accounts that share our ethos.
We’d love to inspire parents to encourage their children to respect and enjoy the wonders of our incredible natural world, so that they become its custodians in the future – and of course we love them to consider one of our kits as a gift the next time they have a special child to buy for. We’d love to keep on growing and spread the joy of outdoor adventure.