Thursday, July 24, 2014 · 6:59 p.m.

Gingerbread village sweetens lessons during the holidays

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Thrasher Elementary School second-graders and many of their parents built a gingerbread village as part of a hands-on lesson in community development, with a tasty twist. (Photo: Staff)

Thrasher Elementary second-grade students created a candy-coated wonderland on Wednesday, a village of sugary architectural masterpieces dubbed “The Suburbs of the North Pole.” To see it is to wish you could take just one dreamy moment to shrink to the size of a mouse and walk the cobblestoned streets of Peppermint Place or Lollipop Lane, taking in the oozing sweetness and creative confections within this magical Candy Land that lines the hallway of the school.

The gingerbread village is one example of this Signal Mountain elementary school’s creative approach to social studies—a hands-on lesson in community development with a tasty twist.

Thrasher Elementary second-grade students created a gingerbread village on Wednesday as part of the school's creative approach to social studies. (Photo: Staff)

Each second-grade class creates a village, maps it and learns how to give directions within that community using cardinal directions (north, south, east and west). In the weeks prior to village construction, students select their own business to build, one that is either a “need” or a “want” in a typical community. They are also challenged with naming the business or service, a process that has concocted names such as “Dasher Elf-ementary,” “Sweet Tooth Dentist” and “Jelly Bean Penny's.”

“Each child decides what business they want, and when too many 'wants' are demanded—toy stores, ice cream shops, video stores, gyms—we put them all in a mall for one student to manage,”said veteran teacher Judy Niedbala, who started the gingerbread village tradition 20 years ago, first at McConnell Elementary and then at Thrasher. “That makes way for the services a community needs, such as doctors, dentists, schools, police and fire stations, grocery stores, post offices, etc.”

The lessons fit well within the season, as the making of gingerbread houses during Christmas is an age-old tradition. Although gingerbread itself can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, the tradition of gingerbread houses was made popular in Germany in the 19th century by The Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection, which included “Hansel and Gretel.” German settlers brought this “lebkuchenhaeusle” (gingerbread house) tradition to North America.

Today, annual gingerbread house competitions across the country enchant visitors with masterful gingerbread displays. In the Southeast, the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., recently hosted the 20th annual National Gingerbread House Competition and Display. In its 20th year, more than 182 contestants participated from all over the country. The entries are on display to the public Monday through Thursday through Jan. 2, 2013.

At Thrasher, gingerbread masterpieces began with a milk carton saved from the lunchroom. Graham crackers were glued to the cartons with a hot glue gun on Monday, and construction began Wednesday. Students arrived to a classroom transformed into Candy Land, with every form of candy available within an arm’s reach. Royal Icing, a white glue made from confectioner’s sugar, egg whites and cream of tartar, was smeared onto the graham cracker structure to form the base for candy décor.

Make your own gingerbread house

A small carton, such as a milk carton

Graham crackers

Hot glue gun

Lots of candy (the more variety, the better!)

Royal icing (one batch): 1 box powdered sugar, 3 egg whites, 1/2 tsp. cream of tarter. Beat until stiff. Put immediately in airtight container. Refrigerate overnight.

Lots of imagination

Form the walls and roof by attaching graham cracker pieces to a carton with a hot glue gun. Use Royal Icing to attach candies. Use your imagination to create trees, cars, signs, fences, etc.

A true gingerbread house aficionado, Niedbala knows how to work magic with candy. She suggested students use gold-covered chocolate coins to decorate the village bank; Twizzlers can be used as gas lines at the gas station or electric lines on the street; ice cream cones form church steeples and trees, when turned upside down; animal crackers create a zoo; and Rolo candies create flower pots.

“Last year, a child whose father worked for the newspaper made tiny rolled-up newspapers, tied them with Twizzlers and put one at the front door of each business,” Niedbala said.

Surprisingly, even after more than 20 years of doing this, Niedbala says the villages are always different from year to year.

“As we place the gingerbread houses on the tables in the hallway, the village really comes to life,” she said. “With paper snowflakes hanging above and little white lights twinkling behind the village—and the smell of sugar in the hallway—the beautiful sight really gets us all in the Christmas spirit. A final touch of ‘snow’ covering the village makes it perfect!"

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. This Christmas, she is asking Santa for a book publishing deal and some new Chaco sandals. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

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