How to Run the Marshmallow Challenge: Instructions for a Facilitative Approach to Maximise Learning

15 April 2019

The Marshmallow Challenge is a very popular team-building activity which, done right, can be a fun way to achieve worthwhile learning outcomes.

In this blog post we’ll tell you how to run the Marshmallow Challenge properly. That is, in a way that delivers value.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Download your FREE Marshmallow Challenge resources 👇

What is the Marshmallow Challenge?

The Marshmallow Challenge is a team-building game that sees teams attempting to build the tallest possible freestanding tower that can support a marshmallow at its peak. 

Materials vary between versions of the challenge (see the next section), but ours involves marshmallows, uncooked spaghetti, masking tape, string, and scissors.

How to use the marshmallow challenge

The Marshmallow Challenge is often used to illustrate design thinking mindsets, such as prototyping and iteration, and the importance of ‘failing’ quickly or to make generalised points on effective teams. 

There are many versions of the Marshmallow Challenge available online, but our version is based on the original challenge developed by Peter Skillman. We’ve chosen this version because it takes a facilitative approach, which in practical terms means adding a review period at the end of the activity to allow participants to reflect on and evaluate their performance.

By taking a facilitative approach to the challenge, you can also expect to gain deeper insights and help participants discover what it is about their specific behaviours that help and hinder effective team working.

Key Skills Developed

  • Collaboration and teamwork skills, such as listening, valuing others’ ideas and co-operating.
  • Leadership, including the ability to influence others or allocate tasks.
  • STEM skills, exploring stable structures, geometry, evaluating materials
  • Innovation and prototyping, trial and error

Instructions for the Marshmallow Challenge

Here’s how to run the marshmallow challenge in 9 easy steps:

  1. Download your Marshmallow Challenge resources
  2. Prepare your equipment and the activity area
  3. Brief participants and split them out into groups
  4. Begin the activity
  5. Get building!
  6. Assess the towers
  7. Declare the winner
  8. Review the activity
  9. (Optional) repeat steps 4-7

More information on each step is given below, and full instructions are available in our downloadable resources.

1. Download your Marshmallow Challenge Resources

You can grab those here.

2. Prepare your equipment and the activity area

Per team you’ll need 1 marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 metre of string, 1 metre of sticky tape, scissors, and 1 pen per team member.

The facilitator will need a flipchart (optional), a pen, a tape measure, 1 participant brief per person, 1 review sheet per person, and the facilitator guide.

Set each table so that they contain all the materials needed for each team. Place the review sheets face down.

3. Brief participants and split them into groups

Use the briefing slides to brief participants on the activity, then hand them a paper brief to refer back to during the task. Some tips for briefing the Marshmallow Challenge:

  • Just read the brief out, don’t elaborate or answer questions, keep the energy up by starting immediately!
  • Use competition wisely. Setting teams in competition with each other can motivate, but it can make participants focus too much on the task (i.e. making a tower), instead of thinking about how they worked as a team.
  • Be careful not to subconsciously manipulate team behaviour. Avoid saying things like: ‘don’t forget to involve everyone’ or ‘we’re going to do a task where planning is important’ This allows natural behaviour to come through which makes the reflection stage more powerful

When allocating teams, it’s usually a good idea to have individuals with a range of interpersonal styles in each team. This typically leads to a richer team dynamic, and as a result a more insightful review.

4. Begin the activity

Set a timer for 18 minutes, then direct participants to their tables.

5. Get building!

This is where the fun begins: participants set about building their towers, and quickly realise that their ideas about the best design probably vary quite a bit. The resulting discussion and negotiation is a hotbed of interpersonal dynamics, so let them get on with it unless things get particularly heated.

6. Assess the towers

Once time is up, teams must stop building. Assess the towers based on the following criteria:

  • The tower must be freestanding
  • The tower must support the weight of a single marshmallow
  • The marshmallow must be the highest point on the structure 

7. Declare the winner

The team with the tallest tower that meets all criteria outlined above is the winner. You can award subsequent places if you want.

8. Review the activity

Use the provided review sheets to get participants thinking about their performance.

The review process is designed to squeeze value out of the activity: rather than one team winning the accolade of building the tallest tower, each participant is invited to evaluate their performance, to consider what helped and hindered performance, and to think about what they would change going forward.

For younger groups, review allows them to think about what they did well and how they would have done things differently.

For older groups this reflection allows for meaningful discussion around processes and team dynamics.

Once participants have completed their sheets encourage them to discuss the answers in their teams. It may be appropriate to get teams to record their key learning points onto a flipchart. These insights are the building blocks for lasting learning outcomes, and while the Marshmallow Challenge is not the most sophisticated activity, it does offer some valuable insights when combined with structured review.

9. (Optional) repeat steps 4-7

All experiential activities can be run multiple times, although if all the variables are kept the same the level of learning will decrease. This is a result of participants improving at the task itself rather than developing better team processes.  

Instead of running the Marshmallow Challenge again, you might consider keeping participants engaged by running an alternative such as the Helium Stick or one of the 53 activities within MTa Insights. The variety will allow you to explore and develop different skills within your learners.

Marshmallow Challenge downloads

We’ve put together a selection of resources to help you to run the Marshmallow Challenge in an experiential way:

  • The presentation slides will help you to set the task up and brief participants
  • The facilitator guide will give you everything you need to run an effective session
  • Parcitipant briefings ensure everyone has the info they need to take part
  • The review sheets will help participants to think critically about their performance

Download your FREE Marshmallow Challenge resources 👇

Discussion Topics

The common themes that arise from this group reflection are listed below and should help you as a facilitator to identify and categorise what you’re seeing.

Remember the job of a facilitator is to enable the discussion not to guide it as this allows participants to make discoveries so these are very much for your reference and not for sharing with the group.

  • Basic team processes including ideation, building consensus and agreeing objectives.
  • The benefits of rapid prototyping and iteration.
  • The importance of failing quickly, learning from failure.
  • Leadership and roles within a team.
  • Appreciating and utilising individual differences.

How to win the Marshmallow Challenge

The most successful designs typically include a latticework of triangles with the marshmallow being balanced at the top – much like the Eiffel Tower. Or if you’re doing a variation that allows multiple marshmallows, building pyramids and stacking them is the most effective way to get the tallest tower. 

But of course, the real way to win at the Marshmallow Challenge is to forget about who built the tallest tower, and reflect on what you’ve learnt and how you can make best use of that learning.

Marshmallow Challenge FAQs

Many facilitators have questions about how the Marshmallow Challenge can be used. So, we’ve answered the most common ones below.

Can the Marshmallow Challenge be used to develop STEM skills?

Yes it can.

The Marshmallow Challenge provides a simple yet engaging opportunity for the development of many different STEM skills. For participants to succeed in the Marshmallow Challenge they will need to fail fast and innovate. They need to constantly test new ideas, learn and conceptualise new approaches to tower building. 

The constant testing shares similarities with the scientific world. A place where hypothesis and ideas are challenged and the feedback of results is incorporated into new designs. Similarly, as this is a construction task applied maths and physics can be used to determine  the optimum configuration of the structure.

If you’re looking for powerful STEM activities for young people, check out the MTa STEM kit: 24 activities designed to develop crucial competencies in young people aged 10-18.

What is the difference between the Marshmallow Challenge and the spaghetti tower challenge?

There is often confusion between the Marshmallow Challenge and the spaghetti tower challenge.

Some assume that the spaghetti tower challenge is different and involves multiple marshmallows. This is not true. The marshmallow challenge / spaghetti tower challenge / marshmallow and spaghetti tower challenge are the same challenge.

There are different variations of the challege as people have incorporated their own ideas. The process of getting there is to build the tallest spaghetti and marshmallow tower.

In this guide we’ve focused on the traditional method as outlined by Tom Wujec with a facilitative approach to embed the learning. This provides an opportunity to reflect on both the task and the team processes at work. In our experience, this method delivers meaningful behavioural change.

Can I use the Marshmallow Challenge as an Icebreaker?

Yes you can.

It works well for meetings of any level as it breaks the traditional mindset of being presented to and encourages participants to work collaboratively. This breaks down barriers and energises a room. As participants are operating within teams it allows for informal introductions amongst team members.

The shared experience serves to start building bonds between members and define group dynamics. Using the facilitative approach these team dynamics can be explored and examined to turn the icebreaker into a meaningful learning experience.

How can the Marshmallow Challenge develop effective team processes?

The post-task reflection of the Marshmallow Challenge, a key part of the facilitative approach, allows teams to explore and identify areas for both personal and team development. Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team provides an accessible framework within which to explore performance. When these 5 dysfunctions are eliminated, and the corresponding functions used in the Marshmallow Challenge the more successful the team tends to be. Lencioni outlines that for a team to be high performing they need to exhibit the following:

  1. Vulnerability based trust
  2. Healthy conflict
  3. Commitment to a shared vision
  4. Accountability
  5. Task focused results

The underlying theme of these characteristics is that ego is left behind. For teams to truly succeed and embrace these principles everyone needs to be orientated towards team success rather than individual success.

Trust and openness allow the free exchange of ideas and quick strategy formulation. Teams where weaknesses and strengths are shared without judgement perform better. This is because it allows an honest appraisal of the team’s skills and how best to use them to build the tallest spaghetti tower.

Having conflict allows the team to communicate more effectively. The respectful exchange of ideas plays a vital role in innovating and prototyping different construction concepts.

Without trust the process of innovation becomes toxic as participants seek validation for their ideas over the success of the task. Once an approach is decided on a high performing teams will commit to this, creating a shared vision. By doing so it both engages and galvanises the team to build the tallest spaghetti tower. In situations where this shared vision does not exist team members can often work at cross purposes. This can lead to unhealthy conflict.

With a shared vision this creates transparency and accountability. Team members hold each other to account for their part in building the spaghetti tower. This contributes to success as all participants need to engage or face being called out.

Lastly the team needs to remain focused on the result of the task. This often means putting ego and personal glory aside for team success. When teams do this well it allows for plans to be adapted so that the tallest possible spaghetti tower is constructed.

Who performs best at the Marshmallow Challenge?

According to Tom Wujec (founder of the challenge) school children performed the task better than business students. An in-depth study showed that Architects, Executive administrators and engineers performed even higher than school children.

If, however, performance is measured based on learning rather than task completion the winner changes. It becomes about which participants develop and change their team behaviours to be more effective. Unfortunately this data is not available but, in our experience, those who are willing to engage with a facilitative approach are those who are the real winners.

What’s the tallest tower that’s ever been built?

The tallest marshmallow spaghetti tower that we can find is 189cm tall. Although this used a version of the challenge which allowed multiple marshmallows. The tallest achieved at MTa was 65cm. You can use that as a benchmark.

Are there any other similar activities I can run?

There are multiple different experiential activities you can run. Each with different levels of involvement and learning outcomes. Tom Wujec favours Draw toast to introduce thinking and design collaboration.

MTa offers a broad range of leadership, STEM and team development activities all of which use a facilitative approach to embed learning. Take a deep dive into the theory behind our most popular team building activity or an activity which supports change management.

Is chubby bunny the same as the Marshmallow Challenge?

Not at all. Chubby Bunny involves seeing how many marshmallows you can fit in your mouth and still say the words ‘Chubby Bunny’. It’s a fun party game but there are, unfortunately, no deeper processes at work. In the interest of research, we tried it and our results were: Alex – 8 marshmallows, Jamie – 7 marshmallows, James – 8 marshmallows, Claire – 9.