Run the Marshmallow Challenge: A Facilitative Approach to Maximise Learning

Welcome to the complete Marshmallow Challenge guide with all the resources you need to run the challenge successfully AND take a facilitative approach so that you maximise the learning opportunities.

Take me straight to the free downloads!

Overview to running the Marshmallow Challenge

cool marshmallow for the marshmallow challengeThere are many versions of the Marshmallow Challenge available online, but this version is based on the original challenge developed by Peter Skillman and takes a facilitative approach. Practically speaking this means adding a period of reflection at the end of your Marshmallow Challenge to increase the effectiveness of the exercise.

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

We’ve created a number of helpful resources here to help you take this facilitative approach and gain the most learning possible from the Marshmallow challenge with reflections and reviews.

How to run your own Marshmallow Challenge

Instructions

  1. Divide participants into teams of 3-6 people.
  2. The winning team will be the one who builds the highest tower which can support one whole marshmallow on top.
  3. The tower should support a single marshmallow. The marshmallow must be the highest point of the structure.
  4. The tower must be freestanding.
  5. Teams cannot combine their resources.
  6. Teams can only use the materials provided.
  7. Teams have 18 minutes to build their marshmallow spaghetti tower
  8. After the activity allow 10 minutes for review sheets to be filled out with individual reflections
  9. Discuss the review sheets as a group for 20 mins with the discussion topics found here.

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

Facilitative approach to the Marshmallow challenge - 3 marshmallows

Preparation

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

Allocate teams, it’s usually a good idea if the teams are arranged so they are composed of individuals with a range of interpersonal styles. This typically leads to a richer team dynamic, and as a result a more insightful review.

Materials Needed

Per Team For the Facilitator
1 marshmallow Flipchart & pen
20 sticks of spaghetti Tape Measure
1 metre of string PowerPoint briefing
1 metre of sticky tape Facilitator Guide
Scissors 1 pen per team member
Review Sheets

Briefing the Marshmallow Challenge

Use the PowerPoint deck to brief the teams.

Top tips:

  • 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 sub-consciously 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.

During the Task

Less is more. Ensure participants follow the rules but:

  • Avoid answering questions about the nature of the task. Repeating the brief is the best approach. This allows the team to work through any ambiguity which is a useful exercise for the groups.
  • If participants are struggling with the task these questions will help them to problem solve as well as improve their team’s process:
    • How do you think you are working as a team?
    • What is your vision for the completed marshmallow spaghetti tower?
    • What is your objective?
    • What is your plan?
    • What is a realistic target?
    • How could the team improve its performance?

Tips on winning the challenge and building the tallest marshmallow spaghetti tower

engaged marshmallow for the marshmallow challenge using a facilitative approachThe most successful designs typically include a lattice work of triangles with the marshmallow being balanced at the top. Much like the Eiffel Tower. If you’re doing the version with 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 Spaghetti 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.

End Of Task

At the end of the task measure the towers and have a short group discussion about successful design features. This serves to give participants ‘closure’ on the task so that they can focus on reflecting on the team processes at work.

If it’s practical, move participants away from the towers, either onto clear desks or into a different room. This helps move focus away from the structures.

Give participants a review sheet to complete individually.

Post Task Reflections

learning marshmallow from the marshmallow challenging using a facilitative approachThe use of reflection after the task allows the deeper learning to take place. It gets the participants to think about their individual actions and behaviours and how that worked in a team environment.

For younger groups this 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.

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.

Downloads to help you run the Marshmallow Challenge

The below resources have been created to help you to run the marshmallow challenge as effectively as possible. The presentation will help you to set the task up, the facilitation document will give you everything you need to run an effective session which leaves participants with real learning and the reflection sheets will help all participants to think critically about what they’re learning from the marshmallow challenge.

Marshmallow challenge facilitator slidesDownload Powerpoint slides for running the Marshmallow Challenge – to present while facilitating

PDF Marshmallow Challenge facilitator guide downloadFree PDF Marshmallow Challenge facilitator guide download so you have full instructions

Free Marshmallow Challenge Worksheet downloadFree Marshmallow Challenge Worksheet download – help young people reflect on the task

Free Marshmallow Challenge Worksheet downloadFree Marshmallow Challenge Worksheet download – help adults reflect on the task

Target Learning Opportunities

The marshmallow challenge allows for large number of primary learning opportunities. The below table outlines what they are and is based on MTa’s model of human behaviour.

Primary Learning Opportunities:
Core Behaviours Complex Attributes
+ Asking for help + Builds on ideas
+ Expressing self + Problem resolution (solving)
+ Listening + Reviews progress
+ Observing
Complex Behaviours
+ Takes calculated risks

Food for thought and alternatives

The Marshmallow Challenge in undeniably popular, it’s easy, quick to run and good fun. When something works OK it’s tempting not to explore alternatives, but MTa Learning Managing Director Jamie Thompson believes there are far better activities. It is his belief that the real value comes from the reflection on these tasks that generate complex, and rich interpersonal processes. The way that the marshmallow challenge is typically conducted skips this vital stage. If you’re looking for alternatives to the Marshmallow challenge consider the MTa Team Kit for teamwork or the MTa STEM Kit for developing STEM skills.

Facilitative approach to the Marshmallow challenge - 3 marshmallows

Common Questions Answered

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

Can the Marshmallow and Spaghetti Tower challenge be used to develop STEM skills?

Yes it can.

The marshmallow tower 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.

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 and Spaghetti Tower 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 and spaghetti tower 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 principals 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 spaghetti tower challenge?

According to Tom Wujec (founder of the marshmallow spaghetti tower 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 facilitative approach are those who are the real winners.

Should the marshmallow challenge be tried more than once?

We don’t recommend it.

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, 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.

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.