Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Marshmallow Challenge

Looking for a great activity, good anytime, but especially great as we all try to survive these last few days to Christmas break?  I recently participated in The Marshmallow Challenge at a district School Counselor meeting and knew right away I had to take it back to school to share with my boys and girls.  The Marshmallow Challenge is an awesome way to actively engage your students while teaching teamwork, cooperation, thinking skills, sportsmanship, perseverance, kindness, planning ahead, problem solving, peer pressure, inclusion, consensus, fairness, time management and more.

The Marshmallow Challenge is simple.  Teams of 4 are challenged to build the tallest, free-standing structure using 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string or yarn, and a marshmallow (regular size, not mini or jumbo) in 18 minutes and the marshmallow must be on top.  I played a Christmas Party Mix CD and used a digital countdown clock I found on the internet to keep give the students a visual of their remaining time.  The excitement, frustration, and collaboration was amazing.  After 18 minutes, I walked around with my yardstick measuring any completed, free standing structures with the marshmallow on top. The height of the winning structure was recorded on my chalkboard for all the classes who followed to see.

When I started The Marshmallow Challenge this past week  I had no idea what to expect as my students participated in this activity, but as the week progressed several scenarios repeated themselves.  In this challenge I saw surprising leaders emerge. Students I had considered quiet or passive and students who struggled academically were taking the lead in successful planning and building. I observed groups who were slow, methodical, precise, and conservative with materials and some who were too scared to start. Then there were the groups who started cutting tape and string and pasta without an inkling of a plan or any conversation with their team. These were usually my students with ADHD and even though they had used all their materials and created nothing with still 10 minutes to go they were perfectly happy.  I had teams who successfully created a free-standing structure with plenty of time to spare, but had leftover materials and just couldn't leave well enough alone.  They continued to touch, manipulate and add to their structure until it fell over.  I had tables of individuals who all set out to create their own  individual structure without referring to their team. There were the usual complaints of they won't listen to my ideas or they won't let me do anything. As these complaints came up I reminded the boys and girls just because the group didn't build it your way doesn't mean they didn't listen to your ideas.  And just because you are not the one holding the spaghetti does not mean you are not doing anything.  What are you doing to participate?

My students loved this activity and we have generated some excellent discussions as we processed our experiences at the conclusion.  We rated ourselves and our team on cooperation, discussed what type of group member we were,  the problems we encountered with construction, what contributed to our success or failure as a group, the biggest surprise or most unexpected thing about the activity, and what they learned about themselves. Their insights astounded me.  Check out my lesson plan here.

As I reflected on the week there were a couple of important changes I made along the way.  At first, I randomly seated students when they entered my room, but after the first day of classes, I started carefully selecting my groups of students.  I was interested to discover what types of groups had the greatest success.  I created single gender groups and mixed gender groups, groups with all dominant personalities and all students with ADHD.   I found single gender groups of girls had more relationship issues and the guys just went all in and didn't have one person that tried to run the show. The mixed gender groups were more dependent on the individual leadership of the student rather than gender.  My SLD students were usually the best builders and idea people and my poor little guys and gals with ADHD ended up with a pile of wadded up tape and dozens of little chopped up pieces of string and pasta.  Another change I made was to stop announcing there would be a prize for the group with the tallest structure.  The idea of a prize seemed to cause too much stress and ill-will for those who were super competitive and were bent on winning. The focus was more on, "We're not going to win!" rather than on trying to build something as a team.  Instead, I said nothing about prizes, but as each class left I would offer a candy cane or Christmas pencil to the winning team.

To find out more about  The Marshmallow Challenge  check out their website and watch the TED talk video embedded there.  You will learn how this challenge began and has since been used with people from Kindergarteners to CEOs.  Have you ever used The Marshmallow Challenge or similar team building activities?  If so, please share your experiences with me.

Merry Christmas!


  1. I loved the Marshmallow challenge. Do you do a lesson on group members' jobs before hand?

  2. Good question, but no, I didn't. I wanted to see natural leadership styles and problem solving emerge on its own. In several classes if I had chosen team leaders or materials handlers I would have stifled the team creativity and dynamics and would not have seen some unexpected leaders emerge. However, in other types of group activities we will often talk about discussion rules and the jobs of various group members. Thanks for asking!

  3. Great post!! I usually plan best team building activities and I know that planning activities is very difficult job. No doubt people love these types of activities. Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience.

  4. Thanks! As you know, some team building activities are difficult to plan, but this one was incredibly easy and the students had tons of fun and learned some valuable lessons about planning and teamwork as well. Thanks for reading my blog!