You know when gingerbread houses are fun to build? Any month that doesn’t end in -cember. December has this next-level pressure to create perfect memories on a strict timeline between parties and demonstrate pin-worthy piping skills and hahaha that just isn’t going to happen with a toddler. BUT, making a spring gingerbread house allows for coconut grass, pink icing, epic collapses, cries of “get me a flying buttress!” and a thrilled toddler who doesn’t know that people usually only do this in winter.
We built this over the course of several days, which allowed us to target different things at different times. We highly recommend that approach, because it’s hard to keep a gingerbread house stable and a kid focused on a target at the same time.
- the usual gross motor and speech targets (see Shortbread)
- Early math: visualizing three-dimensional objects and how to construct them, measuring, estimates, patterns
We’ve been watching more UmiZoomi, and the character Geo builds things out of shapes. Before we built the house, we laid some groundwork by drawing houses together – a triangle on top of a square is a house! (Or sometimes a trapezoid on top of a rectangle, if you’re looking at the roof instead of the gable.)
We grabbed a marker and drew it again on the parchment before cutting the dough. If Belle were a year or two older, I would definitely have her draw out a pattern and/or measure the square walls to make sure they fit; as it was, I eyeballed it and asked Belle if they were about the same.
I cut out two doughs – gingerbread and shortbread – to allow Belle to sort by color and create tile patterns. She wanted to eat them and make patterns with bead-like candies instead. Okay. The shortbread was still handy for windows and doors, which weren’t going to happen by piping.
Coconut grass skills:
- Fine motor: squishing
Buddy did most of the squishing necessary to get a few drops of food coloring spread over some coconut in a ziplock bag.
- Imaginative/social storytelling: what do the people in the house need? What are they doing?
- Fine motor: tweezers, strength, gentle but firm pressure
- Cognition: planning, restraint
We set Belle up with a variety of textures and colors and cookie tiles to decorate with, plus tweezers. The tweezers help practice fine motor control and develop hand strength, and were new to her. I demonstrated how I could pick up a red hot out of a 4 oz jam jar using the tweezers, and she demonstrated how she could pick it up using her fingers, then hold it in place with the tweezers, then take it out and eat it. Not quite what I had in mind, but we’re building a new skill, and with practice, she’ll start testing what else she can pick up with the tweezers.
Belle had a firm idea that the decorations needed to sit in the icing, an idea born from her Christmas gingerbread house kit. This knocked down the house a few times – thanks, Papa, for the rebuilding efforts – but actually provided some great proprioceptive feedback on how hard was too hard.
We spent a lot of time asking Belle “what else should we build for the people?” We ended up with two garden beds (like the ones in our backyard) and a sandbox for the kids, with silver sprinkles to represent the sand toys. Plus paths, lots of paths. Paths of dried strawberry, paths of cookies, paths of icing…because the people needed to walk to their gardens and around the yard.
The day after construction, we started again with more storytelling, and a prompt of “Good morning, gingerbread house people! Did you have any dreams? What are you doing today?” (They’re going to a party at Grandma’s house.)
Then we kept eating their house. Ruthless giants, we are.
- Mixing bowl
- Mixer (with beater and whisk attachments)
- Plastic wrap
- Rolling pin
- 2-3 cookie sheets per batch of dough
- Piping bags or ziplock bags
- Large piece of cardboard (we used a diaper box) and foil to cover it
- Small jars or ramekins to contain decorations
Shortbread recipe here: Shortbread
Coconut grass directions:
- Put desired amount of coconut in a ziplock bag.
- Add food coloring (green, with a little yellow to lighten it up). A few drops should suffice, but add more if not coating the coconut.
- Close bag and squish til coated.
Royal icing recipe of your choice – we used less than 2 cups worth and colored it with food coloring.
Gingerbread Recipe (25 min prep, 2 hr-3 day chill, 45 min cut, 15-18 min bake, 45 min cool; yield: about 3 square feet of 1/4″ thick dough):
This recipe comes from Sally’s Baking Addiction. It’s delicious and sturdy, with minimal rise and spread. Butter holds its shape better than margarine; I would not substitute. It will cream much better at room temperature but if it’s the first ingredient you take out and you take your time getting everything else out, it’s not going to break the recipe. 1/4 tsp each of nutmeg and cloves can substitute for the 1/2 tsp allspice.
- 6 tbsp (3/4 stick) butter, room temperature
- 3/4 c brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 c molasses
- 2 tbsp water
- 3 c flour
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp allspice
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Cream 6 tbsp butter and 3/4 c brown sugar in a large mixing bowl.
- Add 1 egg, 1/2 c molasses, and 2 tbsp water to the bowl and beat until combined.
- Add dry ingredients and mix: 3 c flour, 1/4 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp ginger, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp salt. Dough will be thick and heavy.
- Divide into two discs, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least two hours (up to 3 days).
- Remove discs from refrigerator at least 10 minutes before rolling out and preheat oven to 350°F. Unwrap and place between two sheets of parchment to roll out to about 1/4″ thick – the dough is very tacky and will stick to the rolling pin.
- Cut pieces according to template (not included) or own design and place on cookie sheets lined with parchment. Reroll scraps. Make sure small pieces are on a separate sheet from large pieces, as they will bake faster.
- Bake smaller pieces for 12-13 min and larger pieces for 18-20 min. Let cool completely on the sheets, about 45 min.
- Prepare to assemble!
Assembly (up to 2 hours):
- Base to build on – we used cardboard and foil
- Gingerbread, cooled
- Shortbread, cooled (if used)
- Royal icing, aka the glue
- Assorted objects to help stand things up while icing sets
- Assorted candies/sprinkles/decorations
- Dried fruit/coconut/crushed graham cracker – get a variety of colors and textures
- Assemble the house and try not to move it or touch it.
- Follow your child’s lead on decorating the house and the yard.
- Stop when they lose interest and start again the next day if you care to.