What is the marshmallow game?
The marshmallow and spaghetti challenge is a design challenge that helps teams of people learn some important lessons about the way they work together. To learn more about the spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge you can watch Tom Wujec's TED Talk about it, linked at the bottom – he's used it with teams of people as a design challenge in workshops all around the world.
How do you build the tallest marshmallow challenge tower?
There's no single answer to this question – the way to meet the challenge is by building a prototype together and adapting it as you go along, based on what you discover as a team.
Want to try the marshmallow challenge at home?
It couldn't be simpler and there isn't much you need to know before starting the challenge and no real need to adapt it to suit different ages – just organise family members into teams, handover the items needed to complete the challenge, ask them to see who can build the tallest tower, and watch everyone get to work! It's suitable for everyone of all ages. Very young children actually tend to excel at this, so you might want to make sure the youngest family members are on your team!
Here is a step-by-step guide to completing the marshmallow and spaghetti tower challenge for yourself. In a team of four, participants have to try and create the tallest free-standing structure they can in under 18 minutes, using only the following materials:
20 sticks of spaghetti
One yard of tape
One yard of string
One marshmallow (which must be placed on top of the tower)
Easy, you might think, except what makes this such fun is the fact that it highlights lots of interesting things about collaboration, and those can provide some interesting insights for parents setting kids this challenge at home.
How do you make a structure of spaghetti and marshmallows?
According to Tom Wujec, participants typically start by talking through the task and how they might solve the task. They often squabble about the different approaches to use, or argue about whose ideas should be tried out first. Eventually, and usually just before the timer runs out, they'll attempt to quickly erect the tower and then place the marshmallow on top – but that's usually the point at which the tower collapses because the marshmallow weighs too much to be supported by the flimsy structure they've built.
Interestingly, kindergarten graduates tend to be the best people at completing this, while graduates of business school do worst at it! And the youngest participants don't just succeed in building the tallest structures, they also tend to build the most interesting towers. Tom Wujec says the tallest structure he's seen a group build in marshmallow challenges measured thirty-nine inches.
Why do little kids fare better at the marshmallow challenge than grown-ups?
In part, Wujec says in his TED Talk, it's because kids don't waste as much time as adults arguing over who's going to be the boss – they just get on with the business of building the best marshmallow tower possible as quickly as they can.
But that's not all. Business school graduates tend to start by trying to agree on the perfect plan for building a spaghetti marshmallow tower, leaving themselves too little time to actually execute it. Kids, by contrast, dive right into the activity itself and start by trying out different spaghetti and marshmallow tower structures to see what works. Ultimately, the ability to tackle the activity by prototyping and then perfecting it until the challenge is met is what makes a good designer.
What is a spaghetti tower?
Well, it's an important learning opportunity, for one thing! What can children learn from this spaghetti challenge and trying to complete it in 18 minutes? Aside from learning how to build the tallest marshmallow challenge tower, there are lots of other useful things that children can learn from this activity. It can help to teach them how to prototype and problem-solve, as well as some of the principles of good design and basic engineering.
Different groups of people tackle the spaghetti marshmallow challenge in different ways. The average height of the tower that most people build is 20 inches. Unsurprisingly, architects and engineers tend to create the tallest towers when taking part in this activity – probably because they know more than most people about the shapes and patterns that work best when it comes to building the sturdiest structures. Among adults, the people who do especially well at this activity include executive administrators – primarily because they're good at facilitation – and those who are good at paying close attention to detail.
In one experiment, Wujec offered a prize of $10,000 worth of software to the winning team. And yet not one team managed to meet the challenge – the higher stakes seemed to put them off rather than incentivise them to build the tallest tower! But when the exercise was repeated with the same students, they produced the tallest structure in the quickest time. If you're doing this at home, you could try adding your own incentives to this challenge to see if it changes the outcome. Does the promise of a prize bring out better collaboration in your family members? Or does it just put them under greater pressure?
The marshmallow and spaghetti activity brings out the best in budding designers because it encourages them to collaborate as a team, working together to solve the design problem and fix problems as they go. Wujec says the marshmallow challenge also helps participants identify their hidden assumptions. Once the task is complete, you could ask family members some questions to help them reflect on the experience and what it taught them. Try the following questions:
What did we learn?
Did we work well together?
If not, why not?
Based on what happened, what would you do differently next time?
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