Divinity School Holiday Display Inspires Art by Children of Staff and Faculty

A class from The Little School in Durham finds inspiration to re-create a gingerbread house decoration they spotted in the Divinity School

Members of the Heartwarmers class at The Little School were inspired by a gingerbread house they saw during a visit to the Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of The Little School.
Members of the Heartwarmers class at The Little School were inspired by a gingerbread house they saw during a visit to the Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of The Little School at Duke.

The pitter patter of tiny Velcro shoes resonated off the gray and white tile in the Westbrook Building.

The clutch of 10 preschoolers, all children of Duke staff and faculty who attend The Little School in Durham, had returned to the Divinity School to see a display that documents their holiday art creation that has warmed the hearts of many community members and connected little and “Big Duke.”

“Y’all have been the talk of the Divinity School for your project,” Marleigh Lowe, staff assistant for Divinity School admissions, told the children as she greeted them with high fivesMarleigh Lowe, left, bends down to meet the Heartwarmers who were inspired by the gingerbread house she and the Divinity Office of Admissions decorated that inspired the art project. Photo by Jack Frederick.Inspired by holiday decorations that the children spotted during a walk in November through the Divinity School, The Heartwarmers class at The Little School at Duke decided to create their own version of a decorated brown paper cutout gingerbread house taped on a hall window in the Divinity School by Lowe and Minoka Yonts, Divinity admissions officer.

“They belong to a community and the community welcomes them and wants to hear their voice,” said Heartwarmers teacher Sandy Umstead. “This is a great example.”

The Little School, which encourages children to engage with their communities, recently resumed visiting the Duke campus after a pandemic pause to explore the place where their parents work. Recent stops include the Duke University Chapel and Telecommunications Building.The Heartwarmers class lines up outside the Westbrook Building during a recent visit to campus. The class returned to the hallway that inspired their art project to look at the display that's now there. Photo by Jack Frederick.

After seeing the gingerbread house decoration in Divinity, the class of 3-year-olds returned to The Little School and began creating their own version, with help from Umstead and co-teacher Brenden Coleman.

The 14 kids in the class worked together in groups of three on the arts and craft project every morning for a week. The class started by painting large segments of 3-foot-long white paper with brown Tempera Powder Paint. Once the paint dried, the children worked together to add finishing personalized touches onto pieces — a door in the right corner, glitter, sequins and pops of blue, purple red and yellow hand-drawn decor, colorful stain glass windows covered in snow, flower stickers, a chimney, and a dusting of painted snow on the roof.

Along the way, the class decided to add a swing set for gingerbread people.

The finished masterpiece: a gingerbread house, featuring a happy gingerbread family, proudly fastened onto their classroom window, just like the one at the Divinity School.When asked about the best part of the project, one of the children on a recent visit to Duke exclaimed: “Decorating it!”

After creating the gingerbread, the Umstead – the class teacher – sent a picture of the display to the Office of Admissions at Divinity. To tell the story of how one Duke gingerbread house led to another, she created four poster boards that document in photos how the class completed the artwork with a few paragraphs explaining how it came together. The poster board panels are now in front of Divinity’s gingerbread house in Westbrook.

The Duke Divinity Office of Admissions' holiday gingerbread house inspired a connection between little and At the bottom of the last panel, Umstead invites Duke community members to become pen pals with her class at The Little School.

“They have so many questions about so many things, and I can't always answer them,” Umstead said. “… we would love to have pen pals from big Duke so that if we have questions, we can have them answered.”

Since the poster boards went up at Divinity, passers-by stop to read the boards and pop into the nearby admissions office to talk about the display. Lowe, the staff assistant at Divinity, explains that none of it was planned, that it all was happenstance.

Letting kids lead the way on the gingerbread house project is part of the Reggio Emilia Approach, an educational philosophy at The Little School that urges children to follow their own curiosity and think of themselves as capable citizens from the earliest time of their life.The Heartwarmers class sits in front of the display. The gingerbread house taped to the window inspired their art project, which has become the talk of the Divinity School. Photo by Jack Frederick.

“Our little holiday fun window turned out to bring these kids so much joy and creativity,” Lowe said. “It made our day and made everyone so happy. It's just such a gift to like see the kids use their creativity to create a gingerbread house.”

All faculty, staff and students are welcome to become a pen pal with the class. To learn more, write duke.heartwarmers@thelittleschool.net.

Send story ideas, shout-outs and photographs through our story idea form or write working@duke.edu.