Promoting mutual understanding and cultural dialogue

Teaching techniques: Marshmallow Challenge (Discouraging factor #5)

  • Factor #5: Feeling of exclusion from the group (classmates)

Learning Objectives:

To experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity;

To introduce and experience intercultural team work, advantages of a an effective team work;

To think about what it takes to dramatically increase innovation.


45-60 minutes

Necessary materials:

  • One table for each team

Description of the tool 

The marshmallow needs to be on top. Surprising lessons emerge when you compare teams’ performance. Who tends to do the worst? Why? Who tends to do the best? Why? What improves performance? What kills it?

If you need to kick-start a meeting, get a team into a creative frame of mind, or simply want to encourage people to think about what it takes to dramatically increase innovation, invest 45 minutes to run a marshmallow challenge.

Description of The Activity:

  1. Assemble a Kit for Each Team In advance of the meeting, create a marshmallow challenge kit for each team, with each kit containing twenty sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow. These ingredients should be placed into a paper lunch bag, which simplifies distribution and hides the contents, maximizing the element of surprise.
  2. Deliver clear Instructions. Be clear about the goals and rules of the Marshmallow Challenge. Build the Tallest Freestanding Structure: The winning team is the one that has the tallest structure measured from the tabletop surface to the top of the marshmallow. That means the structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling or chandelier. The Entire Marshmallow must be on top of the structure. Cutting or eating part of the marshmallow disqualifies the team.


Use as Much or as Little of the Kit: The team can use as many or as few of the 20 spaghetti sticks, as much or as little of the string or tape. The team cannot use the paper bag as part of their structure.  Break up the Spaghetti, String or Tape: Teams are free to break the spaghetti, cut up the tape and string to create new structures. The Challenge Lasts 18 minutes: Teams cannot hold on to the structure when the time runs out. Those touching or supporting the structure at the end of the exercise will be disqualified.  Ensure Everyone Understands the Rules: Don’t worry about repeating the rules too many times. Repeat them at least three times. Ask if anyone has any questions before starting.

  1. Start the Challenge. Start the countdown clock and the music with the start of the challenge.

Walk around the Room: It’s amazing to see the development of the structures as well as notice the patterns of innovation most teams follow.  Remind the Teams of the Time: Countdown the time. Usually, I call 12 minutes, 9 minutes (half-way through), 7 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds and a ten-second count down.   Call Out How the Teams are Doing: Let the entire group know how teams are progressing. Call out each time a team builds a standing structure. Build a friendly rivalry. Encourage people to look around. Don’t be afraid to raise the energy and the stakes. Remind the Teams that Holders will be disqualified: Several teams will have the powerful desire to hold on to their structure at the end. Usually because the marshmallow, which they just placed onto their structure moments before, causing the structure to buckle. The winning structure needs to be stable.

Finish the Challenge After the clock runs out, ask everyone in the room to sit down so everyone can see the structures. Likely, just over half the teams will have standing structures.

Measure the Structures: From the shortest standing structure to the tallest, measure and call out the heights. If you’re documenting the challenge, have someone record the heights. Identify the Winning Team: Ensure they get a standing ovation and a prize (if you’ve offered one).  Wrap up with the Lessons of the Marshmallow Challenge: Deliver the attached presentation or just describe some of the key lessons of the marshmallow challenge: Kids do Better than adults: On virtually every measure of innovation, kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures.  Prototyping Matters: The reasons kids do better than adults is kids spend more time playing and prototyping. They naturally start with the marshmallow and stick in the sticks. Adults spend a vast amount of time planning, then executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix the design once they put the marshmallow on top.  The Marshmallow is a Metaphor for the Hidden Assumptions of a Project: The assumption in the Marshmallow Challenge is that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. When you actually try to build the structure, the marshmallows don’t seem so light.

Deeper discussion can follow up.