Den-making and practising space: A Playful Encounter by Claire Levy

This post is part of an occasional series, which has been produced in response to the PhD study weekend at Cumberland Lodge in June 2016 attended and organised by members of the Sociology PhD cohort at Goldsmiths College, University of London.


The theme of the weekend, which comprised workshops, screenings and a visit from guest speaker Michael Guggenheim was ‘How are spaces known through practice and how are spaces practiced through knowing?’ After discussions, which engaged with ideas of physical and emotional mapping and using Solnit’s (2005) ideas of getting lost in a world, we cannot know completely, the group embarked on some exploratory research in and around the site, located in Windsor Great Park.

The resulting posts have been created through endeavours to explore creative and lively research methods, which focus on our relationships with space and knowledge-making.




Engaging with the idea of mapping and practising my knowledge of a new space (in this case the imposing Windsor Great Park which envelops the Cumberland Lodge site), I endeavoured to bring an essence of playfulness to my research field trip.


It was an auspicious weekend : digesting the results of the referendum vote to leave EU. This is an institution which may not be perfect but for which I feel a deep affection and have benefited from both as a student working and studying in Europe and as a researcher collaborating on cross-border projects. In my not so far distant familial history I am distinctly aware of the sanctuary the UK offered different factions of my family in the early part of C20th with the rise of anti-Jewish feeling in central and Eastern Europe. In light of events, I decided to hide.


In those days after the vote, I sought a retreat from the rhetoric and endless updates of resignations and vitriol and wanted some time to reflect and indeed to explore another way of working in the world.


Playing was not just an aid for the process of digestion, but a means to look to the future using playful means: garnering the possibilities of the world through a kind of post-structural openness. Employing Sutton-Smith’s ‘perverse experimental practice, which is always opening into the new’, (Sutton-Smith, 2009) I was hoping that I might find some illumination.


I was mindful of Colin Ward’s (1988) romantic stories of den-making by young people between the wars actually being an indicator of how land-use has changed since WWII. And further to this, a diminishing of ‘empty spaces’ which could offer sites for children’s play is stark in Marion Shoard’s (1980) study of the countryside. Shoard points to the extensive erosion of ‘non-profit making’ patches of land in 70’s, including woodland and hedgerows (prime den-building sites), despite the imposition of quotas from the Common Market.[1] At this moment of Brexit it felt an apposite moment to revisit these spaces of imagination. Appropriating a patch of land to create a small kingdom of possibility seemed a joyous and playful way to engage with this new reality. Through the practice of den-making I wanted to know a space of possibility. A booklet for sale in reception offering the ‘grand seclusion’ of Windsor Great Park filled me with hope.


I wanted to play with the landscape. To be ‘invited’ to build my den in a place which felt right. In this way I tried to work with the question, using an intuitiveness, a spontaneity which could be uncovered through my interaction with the environment around me.

My methods were visual, while also recording my thoughts and the sounds around me on an audio recorder. I tried working with Wylie’s concept of ‘actualisation through the gaze’ (Wylie, 2006:521) drawing on Merleau Ponty’s ideas on visible depth. I wanted to use my playful interaction in conjunction with the idea of an ‘instantly made place’, that place is a process.


The fragmentary nature of the data I include reflects these ideas. I learned quickly that even though I hadn’t mapped my journey in advance, even to chart my progress using the paper map was impossible. Somehow my perception of my changing surroundings bore no resemblance to the lines on the paper. So to relate some sense of my journey, the geo-location screen-grabs are part of this collation of fragments of experience. The result is a document of sound recording, images and maps.

With the Nietzschian thought in mind : ‘People themselves must play boldly with no assurances for what they do’ (Russell and Ryall, 2015:53) I set forth.

What I hope is revealed is an exploration which I attempted to conduct boldly despite some misgivings about the perceptions of others.



The boggy pond


Claire Levy is a film-maker and PhD candidate in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths College, UoL.


Russell, W. K. and Ryall, E. S. (2015) ‘Philosophizing Play’, in Johnson, J. E., Eberle, S. G., Henricks, T. S., and Kuschner, D. (eds) The Handbook of the Study of Play. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. Available at: (Accessed: 27 June 2016).

Shoard, M. (1980) Theft of the Countryside. London: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2009) The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press.

Ward, C. (1988) The Child in the Country. Bedford Square Press.

Wylie, J. (2006) ‘Depths and Folds: On Landscape and the Gazing Subject’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24(4), pp. 519–535. doi: 10.1068/d380t.

[1] UK joined the EEC in 1973.


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