When you’re a mom with small kids, you’re always looking for new places to take them other than playgrounds. This was certainly the situation I was in around Christmas 2007, when I had an energetic 2-year-old bouncing off the walls.
My friend and co-worker, Suzanne Perez Tobias, was (and still is) a parenting expert, and she had a suggestion: Gingerbread Village. The event, where kids build and decorate their own tiny gingerbread houses using provided graham crackers and super-sticky frosting, had been a tradition in her family since her children, Jack and Hannah, had been small. So important was this event to the Tobias family that friends from out of town would travel to Wichita each year to attend with them.
Lexi was only 2, but she loved Gingerbread Village. She didn’t fully grasp what we were doing, but she did understand that a table filled with Froot Loops, animal crackers and frosting was a table she wanted a seat at. Her early houses looked like something a deranged, colorblind Christmas mouse would live in, but we had fun, and she left tired but happy.
We went again the next year. Then the year after that. Each year, we invited different friends to join us. One grandma came along one year. The other grandma came the next. The event changed venues, moving from the Church of The Magdalen to the Sedgwick County Extension Center to Cessna Activity Center to Exploration Place. We followed it wherever it went.
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This year, Alexis is 12, and we still go to Gingerbread Village. It’s become a tradition to bring her two besties, ages 13 and 15, and the three girls plan their houses for days. We’re now seasoned pros. We no longer need volunteers to help us with the difficult task of getting our graham cracker roofs to stick, and we bring a big box of our own candy for decorating – candy rocks for our stone paths, coconut to replicate snow, Life cereal to use as shingles.
The best part is that we’ve gotten a new generation hooked on Gingerbread Village. My best friend’s 2-year-old made his first masterpiece last year and ingested enough frosting glue to seal his stomach closed. When we return to the 23rd annual Gingerbread Village this weekend at Exploration Place, I’m certain he’ll be even more excited about the array of delicious decorations spread in front of him.
My once wild 2-year-old now is an artist, and her houses are amazing creations. Our family tradition is not to eat our houses – though we eat plenty of our decorations as we work – but to display them on the mantle until New Year’s Day.
Then, they go off to the dump to hopefully provide shelter for some deranged, colorblind Christmas mouse.
Gingerbread Village tips from the pros
Be the first in line: Though Exploration Place has plenty of seating, the event drew about 3,200 people last year, said Exploration Place’s Christina Bluml. We’ve always found it’s easiest to get seated if you show up right when it opens.
Bring some extra decor: Organizers provide everything you need to make a house: Graham cracker walls and roof materials, frosting glue to hold it all together, a cardboard platform to build it on and basic decorations to cover it, including animal crackers, colorful cereal, candy canes, Christmas-shaped pretzels and gumdrops. But your house will be extra special if you bring some of your own supplies. We always bring coconut for snow and candy rocks for our front walkways. Nifty Nut House and Rocket Fizz would be good places to shop before you come.
Ask for help: The event will have volunteers roaming the room, and they’re all happy to help with construction. Putting on the roof is the hardest part, but with practice, you’ll get it.
Decide your rules beforehand: Our family allows as much snacking during the build as the builders want. But we made a rule against eating our actual houses. We leave them up as part of our Christmas decor and then toss them when the holidays are over. (Some families, though, snack on their houses once they get home.) You’ll save yourself from tears and tantrums if you set the ground rules before you go.
Plan to spend a couple of hours: Don’t rush the process. Let your little artists take their time. An hour and a half to two hours is a good amount of time to spend (though Exploration Place reports that at least one couple attends every year and stays from open to close.) Also, let your kids make their houses exactly as they wish even if their designs don’t appeal to your inner decorator. They’ll get better as they get older.
Take in the extras: The Butler Community College culinary students will be there building a gingerbread airplane on the spot, so be sure to check that out. Also, your ticket to Gingerbread Village includes admission to Exploration Place, so plan to stay after and take in the exhibits. Volunteers will let you check in your houses for safekeeping while you explore.
What: A gingerbread house-building event that has become a tradition for many Wichita families
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Where: Exploration Place, 300 N. McLean
Admission: $5 for members or $9.50 for adults ages 12 to 64, $8 for seniors, $6 for kids age 3 to 11, free for 2 and under. Admission to Gingerbread Village includes a gingerbrad house-making kit and admission to Exploration Place
Proceeds: Benefit Assistance League of Wichita, which has put the event on for 23 years
Information: Visit exploration.org