It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Tantalus lives: We make gingerbread houses

Remember your Greek myths?

(What? You didn’t spend long hours as a child curled into a comfy chair with philandering Zeus, pissed-off Hera, horny Aphrodite and the drunken Bacchus? What were your parents thinking?)

Tantalus, for those of you who may not remember was the poor unfortunate soul sentenced to spend the afterlife submerged in water up to his neck, that dipped away when he tried to quench his thirst, and surrounded by bunches of grapes that retreated out of reach when he tried to satiate his hunger. Can’t remember why. Possibly he tried to diddle one of Zeus’s floozies.

I did something similar to the daycare tots this week. NOT the diddling! Honest to pete. Eeew. No, the Tantalus thing — from which we get, obviously, the word “tantalize”.

First, I set onto the dining room table five of these:


Graham crackers welded together with royal icing, made a few days prior. Food, in other words. Food which they were NOT to eat.

They were not entirely successful.
“Emily! Emily, lovie, don’t eat that!” Of course, this is (almost) entirely my fault. I had moved the houses to the dining room table when I needed a little more space in the kitchen and forgotten to move them back. “No, lovie. Not now. We’re going to decorate them later.”

Nigel looks at me with his huge blue soulful eyes. “But we’re hungry, Mary!”

It is 10:03. Snacktime is 10:00. Ah, those 100% accurate tummy clocks. It’s a good thought, though: fill them up with something nutritious, and maybe they won’t eat the gingerbread fixings before they get on the houses.

Though those are some very appealing fixings …


In fact, they do remarkably well. Once we get started, they are engrossed in the process of gluing the candies to the icing.

It takes Nigel a little longer than the others to get started.

“Nigel, don’t eat the candy. Put it on the house.”
“Nigel. The candy goes on the house.”
“Nigel. If you eat one more piece of candy, you will have to leave the table until I can watch just you.”
It’s really bizarre. It’s as if his hand and mouth are working independently of his brain. He knows it’s forbidden, yet even as he and I maintain eye contact, the jellybean goes in the mouth. Weird.
“Okay, Nigel. Away you go. You can make yours later, when I can help you more.”
Nigel’s eyes widen in shocked horror. (Whic is also bizarre. He knows by now I follow through. Always. Usually his reaction to the follow-through is resignation. Oh, well.)

He leaves the table in a soggy pool of self-sorry tears.

I let him languish on the couch for three minutes or so, then call him back. And now he gets it. Without a second’s hesitation, the candies make it from tray to house with nary a pitstop at mouth. Well done, Nigel!
It’s engrossing. It’s tricky. It’s just the right balance of fine motor control and fun.
They work in focussed silence for a good 10 or 15 minutes. Timmy goes a full half hour, long after the others have left the table. And the results? Bright and sticky architectural sweetness! A little primitive, but no less appealing for all that.
And the mommies and daddies? They LOVED it!

December 20, 2007 - Posted by | Christmas, crafts, food


  1. Well, of course THEY loved it…THEY didn’t have to buy the ingredients, make the icing, construct the buildings, organize the fixin’s or keep poor Nigel from losing a battle with his sweet tooth.

    That wasn’t meant to sound negative…(maybe it’s my own experiences with graham cracker gingerbread houses haunting me)

    I just mean that, if there were awards for child-care provider of the year…you’d definitely have my vote.

    Comment by Sheri | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. “they were not entirely successful.” That made me laugh out loud.

    It makes my day to know I’ve made someone laugh out loud. Thank you.

    Comment by Bridgett | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  3. Hey, we just did that, too.
    ‘Course, I just had a single three-year-old doing it. But she got to learn patience when we had to wait for the walls and then the roof to set before she could decorate.

    Isn’t it fun? And, as I know well from long experience, patience is a virtue that takes a lot of practice … Best to start young!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  4. what a good idea! And I LOVE that picture of Emily, I’m guessing it is, with that sweet curve of cheek.

    It is indeed. Little round Emily, cuddly plush toy come to life. Without the plush.

    Comment by kelli in the mirror | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  5. K and B’s mom hosts a gingerbread party every year. This year there were fifteen children decorating houses and cookies. Those who were decorating the houses ate so much candy I was surprised that there was any left for the houses. I think the parents took the “i don’t care, it’s only one day” stance, whereas I was on them big time for eating the candy!

    I think what matters is that the kids had fun!

    Generally I’m with the “this is a treat, why not?” camp, but in this case I wanted the houses to survive until at least three seconds after their parents had a chance to see them! After that, it’s up to the parents.

    Comment by Angela | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  6. This looks like such fun! I’m looking forward to doing this with the kids over the weekend. (Of course, the gingerbread train kit we bought from school had NO icing and almost NO candy, so I will be picking up some icing and some supplemental M&Ms while grocery shopping together.)

    Huh. How can they call it a “kit” if one critical component is entirely missing, and another woefully inadequate? I hope you didn’t pay too much for it! Still, if it’s from the school I assume it was a fund-raiser. All for a good cause!

    Comment by BookMama | December 20, 2007 | Reply

  7. My son’s preschool did this, but the mom that prepared the gingerbread houses used A GLUE GUN. “They just wouldn’t stay with icing.” Now, try to get a kid to understand that not only are they not supposed to eat the candy, but they’ll never even get to eat the house later! Was the woman never a child?!

    Bwah-ha! Hot melt glue isn’t toxic, is it? Okay, just teasing. What a bizarre thing to do, but I suppose, charged with the task of producing 20 of these things for the morning, and discovering the damned icing won’t set properly would drive the sanest woman to desperate measures.

    Comment by Jill | December 21, 2007 | Reply

  8. We kept my brood happy for ages with a coupel of candles, a lump of putty and loads of freshly picked holly and ivy, plus a bit of old ribbon, tinsel and Cristmas cards, Voila three beautiful tale decorations. Well, table decoraions anyway.

    Unfortunately we did it with my mother, who kept telling them how to do it “properly”. And got very upset that Mstr A wanted to pick each individual berry off the branch and poke it into the putty. I tried to explain that he was happy doing it that way, and why not, but she was very concrned about adult perceptions:-( Oh well.

    Comment by juggling mother | December 22, 2007 | Reply

  9. Sounds like my experience with the kids at my sons daycare decorating cupcakes. The cupcakes were not light and fluffy because they all had to have a turn stirring them and somehow there was less batter than normal. The kids were not allowed to eat them right away – they had to wait for afternoon snack and this was the morning – so we had to watch them closely because some just started gnawing away at the top. However, despite not stirring to a timer and despite a few teeth marks and despite their lack of professional training, they loved it and had a fantastic time. And apparently they were tasty for the afternoon snack. Kids and baking things are fun!

    Comment by Alison | December 24, 2007 | Reply

  10. I wish we had mouth-brain independence during food activities. Unfortunately, they seem to occur when kicking someone’s head (discreetly) is occurring. *sigh* One day I will be brave enough to build gingerbread houses. Not yet, though.

    Comment by Kat | February 9, 2008 | Reply

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