Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Mini 'Gingerbread' Houses - Family STEM Program

Gingerbread houses for kids, graham cracker houses

Yes, building gingerbread houses can be a STEM program! It all depends on how you do it.

This is a program I have been wanting to do every since I started working at the library, and this year I was finally in a position where I could. I first started doing these mini-houses made from graham crackers with my daughter, so she could have her own to do while I worked on mine that I wanted to be "just so", or worked on creations for clients (this was back during my days as a semi-professional confectionery artist). 

Since I was doing this program as an expanded version of my monthly elementary STEM program, I was adamant about retaining as much creativity, engineering, and problem-solving as possible. That meant no pre-assembly, no pre-cutting, no forms or templates (i.e. milk cartons), and no dividing the candy up into exactly identical, individual portions. I wanted to encourage creativity, not cookie-cutter houses that all looked similar, and I had confidence in my participants' construction skills (with parental assistance). I also had enough experience making gingerbread houses to know it's really not as difficult as many fear, with the right materials.

Of course, I had to dress appropriately for the occasion:

Ages: This was advertised as an all-ages family program, but most participants were between the ages of 3 and 10, plus all the adults.

Time: 1 hour (plus 2-hours for set-up and 1 hour clean-up)

Number: 30 participants (registration was required & limited due to room size)

Budget: Approximately $75 (buying store brands on sale)

  • 7 boxes graham crackers
  • 15-16 cans vanilla icing
  • 30+ disposable piping bags
  • 30+ rubber bands
  • 30+ 8" coated cake boards (if you use regular cardboard, you must cover with foil)
  • 30+ plastic knives
  • 30+ paper plates
  • short, wide plastic cups and/or bowls for putting candies and other decorations in
  • plastic spoons and/or tongs
  • assorted candies and other decorations
    I provided: mini candy canes, gumdrops, starlight mints, assorted other hard candies, cinnamon imperials (red-hots), mini M&Ms, Smarties, Teddy Grahams, and mini-twist pretzels. 

1. I put together a short Power Point with basic instructions and tips with photos to go over at the beginning. Then I also made a slide show of assorted pictures of gingerbread houses, mostly mini-graham cracker houses, but also a few amazing gingerbread structures, like the Capitol building, a castle, St. Basil's cathedral, and of course, Hogwarts, to just have running on a continuous loop throughout the program for inspiration.

2. I pre-filled 30 piping bags with icing, cutting the tip off to make an appropriate opening and twisting and rubber banding the top closed (this makes it much easier for novices and
kids; I have found using zip-lock bags instead of pastry bags does not work as they rupture way too easily). (This took an hour alone, and was the most labor-intensive part.)

3. I had 6 tables set up with 5 places each, and at each place I set out a cake board, paper plate, plastic knife, filled piping bag, and 5 graham cracker sheets (4 sheets is enough for a basic house). Then I added 3 cans of icing (that were about half full after filling the piping bags) per table [to save time and not have to divide it up further, I figured families could share], and paper towels.

4. As a compromise between being sure everyone had enough of each candy and allowing creativity and individual variation (plus saving time), I divided each candy/decoration into six portions in cups or bowls and placed one of each on each table, rather than dividing into individual portions or putting it in one big buffet up front. For anything that was not individually wrapped, I included a spoon or tongs.

5. I put extra supplies on a table up front in case we had extra participants, people wanted to try to build a slightly bigger house, or needed more icing or crackers.

The Program:

1. I asked everyone to come in and have a seat, but to please not touch anything until everyone was settled and I had given them some instructions and tips.

2. The first thing I went over was practicing safe food handling since we were working in a group and sharing supplies. That meant no eating of the supplies during the program (plus we wanted to be sure there was enough of everything), no licking icing off the knives, and no licking of fingers. [I know it is not realistic to expect complete compliance, as the temptation is very strong, but it's never too early to learn proper kitchen hygiene and food handling].

3. Then I showed them a few samples of different houses and the basic process of construction: spread a thick layer of icing in the center of the cake board, pipe or spread icing along all the edges of the pieces to act as glue, press them together gently. 

4. One important tip is to use a gentle sawing motion with very little pressure when cutting the crackers to the shapes/sizes needed to avoid breakage! And just in general, to use a light touch when adding pieces or decorations to your house. After it's assembled, you can pipe a zig-zag over all the seams and raw edges to make it look more "finished".

5. And the biggest tip of all is to remember the point is to have fun, not make a perfect house! So don't worry if your house is crooked, cracked, or lopsided. Most mistakes can be hidden with icing and candy, and there are no building codes in gingerbread land!

How It Went

I admit I was a bit nervous, hoping I had not overestimated my participants' construction skills and patience, as this was the first time I had done this activity with a large group. But, it went so well!

I was absolutely amazed at how well everyone did! I was expecting to be run ragged, going back and forth helping frustrated children, but out of 27 kids there was really only one that had problems and got visibly frustrated. Most families worked really well together, with parents provided assistance and advice when needed. Some of the older kids worked pretty much independently, and as expected, the younger kids needed a bit more help. And as also expected, there are always a few parents that help perhaps a bit too much, but everyone was having a good time.

While most did follow the basic square house with a gabled roof like my example, some did build slightly larger, rectangular houses, other added creative additions and accessories, such as chimneys, Santa in the chimney, Santa's sleigh on the roof (creatively using candy canes for sleigh runners), trees, light posts, pathways, and dog houses. While all the houses were adorable, one child was particularly creative with his design, building a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house, complete with a table set with candy plates on the upper terrace.

Gingerbread houses with kids, Frank Lloyd Wright gingerbread house

Everyone had a great time, and were very proud of their creations. There were lots of smiling faces and many compliments and thank you's, and since my assistance was not needed nearly as much as I had expected, I was able to spend more time chatting with families and admiring their houses. There were so many great houses I put all the pictures in slideshow so I could show them all:

And I get to do it all again on the 20th! Since I knew there would be a lot of interest, but the size of our room makes it necessary to cap it at 30, I offered two sessions for twice the fun!

Take Home Message

You can do a gingerbread house program without pre-assembling and doing everything for them! Free-building encourages creativity, problem-solving skills, patience, and a greater sense of accomplishment. In addition, using a piping bag increases hand strength and picking up and placing candy decorations uses fine-motor skills, both of which contribute to writing skills.

I've followed several different discussions about gingerbread house programs over the last few years, and I'll be honest, I was surprised at how many said they pre-assemble everything so all the kids have to do is stick their individually-portioned candy on them, some even saying they use hot glue (yikes, never a good idea to mix inedible with edible, especially when working with children). I'm sure people have their reasons for doing it this way, and perhaps have different goals that I do, but after having done a free-build family program, I wouldn't do it any other way.

Also, a note about icing. While royal icing is the traditional icing used for gingerbread houses, it is a PAIN to work with, especially for kids, and it completely unnecessary. Regular buttercream icing or store-bought icing in a can is so much easier to work with. It is thicker and stickier, and provides more support and holding power without having to wait for it to set. True, it does not dry quite as hard as royal icing, but it will easily last for a month. Royal icing is necessary for the big elaborate gingerbread masterpieces because they are so large, take weeks or even months to construct, and are meant to be kept on display indefinitely.

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