Make easy gingerbread houses with children and create learning opportunities, too.
When I first started teaching, my grade level partner suggested making gingerbread houses with our second graders. Sure, I thought. How hard can it be?
Well, it can be pretty hard. But, the children loved it!
These easy gingerbread houses are perfect for children because the small, milk container provides a solid foundation. Graham crackers fit nicely right over the top of the milk carton. The hardest part is splitting the graham crackers on the perforated lines.
Three years after I made my first gingerbread houses in the classroom, I moved to London to teach in a low income neighborhood. I wanted my students there to experience the joy of making gingerbread houses at school, but this was 2003 and I couldn’t get graham crackers in the U.K. So, I purchased actual gingerbread (I should have made it, but it was too late). Then, when I went to collect milk cartons from school I discovered the British milk cartons were rectangular instead of house-shaped.
The resulting gingerbread houses were crumbling, rectangular monstrosities. I was embarrassed to send them home, but the children loved the experience. One of my students told his teacher the next year that making gingerbread houses was the best day he ever had in school. That made me feel good.
So, if you’re feeling brave this year and you’re okay with messy projects, here are some tips for making easy gingerbread houses with your children at home, at a party, or with an entire class at school.
It’s far more relaxing to start early. This way you can do a little of the preparation each day. Or, if you’re a teacher, you’ll have a chance to delegate some of these tasks to helpful parents.
1. Prepare the Milk Cartons
Collect the milk cartons early and wash them out so they have a few days to dry.
If you’re a teacher, ask the custodian if you can come into the cafeteria at the end of lunch and collect a bag full of milk cartons. Your custodian may even offer to do it for you.
Get extra milk cartons just in case they don’t survive the washing or rough handling by children.
Wash out the milk so they don’t smell and let them dry upside down. I started with mine upside down over a paper towel in the kitchen. When they were somewhat dry I moved them into a box in the garage, but left them open to continue to dry out.
2. Cut the Cardboard Base
It helps to have a firm base below your milk carton house. I cut up a few cardboard boxes with an X-acto knife. Measure a square that will fit your milk carton house and some extras like an ice cream cone tree, a marshmallow snowman, or an icing ice-skating rink…
3. Wrap Your Cardboard Base with Foil
Wrap your cardboard bases with foil and tape it down like a present (on the underside of the base).
4. Add a Name Label
Stick a name label on each cardboard base. This way you won’t forget to remind children to write their names on their gingerbread house bases. At the end of the day, you want children to take home the right one.
5. Send Out A Gingerbread House Donation Request Letter
Here is a template of a letter you may wish to adapt. It lists all the candy and supplies I request. Collect all the supplies two days before you make the gingerbread houses so you have time to purchase any missing items.
This is a link to the letter so you can download it and change it:
6. Make the Royal Icing
The Royal Icing is the glue that sticks everything together. You may want to make a practice batch and create a sample house to show the children. This way you can tweak the recipe. You don’t want it too soupy because then the children have to wait a long time for it to dry and stick.
If you’re a teacher you can ask a few parents to make it and send it into class in an airtight container. You may want to have them send this in on the day.
Here’s a link to a good recipe. I doubled it and made three batches for an entire class:
7. Make Clean-up Easy
Use wipeable table cloths or butcher paper to make clean-up easier. Also, have a set of wipes on every table for sticky fingers and mess clean-up.
Additional Learning Opportunities
If you want to make use this project to create learning opportunities or if you need to justify it for your school district, here are some ideas.
- Have children count out the candy (e.g. 20 M&M’s, 10 skittles, 8 marshmallows)
- Have children add an array to the base. This could be a garden array (with red and green M&M’s as grass and flowers). You can ask them to make a 4×5 array and then calculate how many M&M’s they have used.
- Discuss the use of a milk carton base vs. not using a base. Which is stronger? What do we learn about engineering from this opportunity?
- Graph the different types of candy used. How many round peppermints did you use? How many marshmallows?
- Discuss 2-D and 3-D shapes when you make your gingerbread houses. Your tree is a cone (if you used the ice cream cone). The bottom of the house is a cube. How many sides does the cube have? How many faces? How many vertices? Are the graham crackers squares or rectangles?
- Use gingerbread house making as a culminating project for a unit on fairy tales. Rd. Hansel and Gretel with the kids before you do this project. Discuss the features of fairy tales. Write descriptions of gingerbread houses before making them. Draw a design ahead of time. This might yield some amazing creative writing!
There are many ways to incorporate learning into gingerbread house making. Feel free to use any of these ideas or let me know if you come up with some of your own.
Your children will always remember making easy gingerbread houses with you. My son added a fountain to his house last night. I’m always amazed by children’s ideas when they let their imaginations take over.