NMSA2011 Conference Connections

NMSA/Association for Middle Level Education's 38th Annual Conference & Exhibit

Marshmallow Challenge Helps Build Team Community

Posted by Jill Spencer on 09/12/2011

A “strong sense of team community” is one of the seven attributes of highly effective middle grades teams identified in the 2004 NMSA Research Summary, “Interdisciplinary Teaming”.  A strong community is a secure and nurturing place for its members.  Children, adolescents, and adults learn better when they feel physically and psychologically safe.  This kind of atmosphere and its accompanying healthy sense of community just doesn’t develop magically on its own—we need to provide academic and social opportunities for our students to participate in, thus developing our own team culture.

Over the years I have discovered that physical team-building challenges help build a strong sense of community.  I think there are several reasons why this is so:

  • These challenges necessitate collaboration among students who do not normally hang out with one another.
  • The situation is non-threatening because no grades are involved. Not worrying about earning an A helps some students to relax  and let their creativity be unleashed.
  • Students who often do not shine in the world of writing and recitation sometimes hold the key to a successful completion of the task because of their spatial or mechanical acuity. Their peers begin to appreciate them in new ways.
  • These challenges are fun yet require students to develop problem solving strategies.  Wise team teachers help students transfer these strategies to the “academic” setting.

One of my favorite activities is the marshmallow challenge.

Here’s the challenge:

  • Divide the participants into groups of 4
  • Give each group the following materials:
  1. 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
  2. 3 feet of tape
  3. 3 feet of string
  4. 1 marshmallow


  1. 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
  2. 15 mini marshmallows
  3. 1 large marshmallow
  • Provide the following prompt: Build the tallest, free standing structure that you can with the materials provided. The entire large marshmallow must be on top.
  • Give the group a time limit: 15 to 20 minutes

When time is up, record the height of each structure and record it next to the names in each group.

As students work together they are making connections across cliques, friends from elementary school days, and neighborhoods. Their finished product gives everyone a sense of accomplishment.

Another important part of the challenge, reflection, comes at the end of the construction period.

  • If it is a small group, ask each quartet to explain their process for building their structure.  In a larger group, pair up the quartets and have them share.
  • Then, ask the entire group three questions:
  1. Why was your team able to successfully meet this challenge?
  2. What might your group do differently the next time?
  3. How would we apply the strategies we used here to group projects we do in class? (Chart these ideas to use later in class.)

I wish I could say that I created this challenge, but I didn’t.  I saw it on TED Talks. Ted Wujec, a developer of new technologies, describes this challenge and its importance in a TED lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M). Watch the video! Wujec frames the challenge as more than just a fun team building activity.

Wujec makes the point in his TED Talk that the majority of groups don’t try to incorporate the marshmallow until the last minute, and its weight causes the structure to collapse.  He points out that most endeavors have a “marshmallow” that provides a crushing weight that sends plans astray.  Use the marshmallow effect to help students think metaphorically about current studies:

  • What was the “marshmallow” in the years leading up to the American Civil War?
  • What do some scientists believe will be the “marshmallow” in climate change?
  • Think about Scrooge’s 3 visitors.  Which experience do you think was the “marshmallow” that led him to change his ways?

There are lots of possibilities for connecting team challenges like the marshmallow tower to the concepts that are tested. But more importantly, students need opportunities to practice this type of thinking because the world economy demands that manufacturers, the military, and even law firms need innovative thinkers if they are to remain competitive. “The army has also turned soldiers who were once just shooters into intelligence analysts, gathering executable information for the very missions they were sending themselves and compatriots on. The process “created guys who were entrepreneurial and always fighting for more information. They owned the mission much more,” emphasized General Stanley McChrystal.  We must include opportunities for innovative problem solving within our every day curriculum.

Building a physically and psychologically safe team culture and nurturing innovative thinkers — two excellent reasons to include team challenges throughout the year.!

If you are going to the AMLE’s Annual Conference in Louisville I will be including the marshmallow challenge in my session on teaming.  Come test your innovative thinking skills to find out how high a marshmallow tower you can help build.  The record in my workshops is about 20 inches–hope to see that record broken in Louisville! The session title is “Teaming Rocks,” and it is on Friday, November 11 at 2:00 in room 216 in the Convention Center.

In the meantime join me at my regular blog on teaming–Teaming Rocks.


3 Responses to “Marshmallow Challenge Helps Build Team Community”

  1. Thanks, Jill! Another good example of how something that is relatively inexpensive can engage the whole learner and be used to practice lots of skills – teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, communication, and more.

    Just curious – How do you keep the middle school kids from eating the marshmallows? (Silly question I know, but a few of my students come to mind and I’m picturing a problem with my structure-building inventory.) I would probably tell them before I passed the marshmallows out that “they have been handled and dropped before so they have lots of germs so please don’t put them near your mouth.” I mention this because I use dry pinto beans when we play Bingo (Bean-go) with Spanish vocabulary and I have seen kids put them in their mouth to see what they taste like, so I’ve had to warn them – “I’ve used these beans for years and I can’t guarantee that they haven’t been up someone’s nose.” That usually destroys the temptation to eat them. (My grandmother actually told my mother when she was little to never stick beans up her nose. Well, my mother probably never would have thought of doing it, but now she was curious as to what would happen, so she did. It got stuck, sprouted and got infected. The doctor was very surprised when he found the source of the sinus infection.)

    Do teams ever try to join forces and combine their resources? It is always interesting when groups think outside of the ‘competition’ box and use collaboration to create a win-win. I don’t see it happen spontaneously much in middle school and not very often in the adult world either. (One of the things I love about the AMLE conference is that so many people are willing to share ideas and resources. I can build one heck of a structure with what I learn in those three days!) Good luck with the “Teaming Rocks” session and I hope that a team breaks the record!

    Cally Stockton
    (No tengo frijoles en mi nariz, mamá.)

    • Jill Spencer said

      Great question Cally! Middle schoolers ( and some adults in my sessions) have been tempted to munch a marshmallow. I would have two bags–one pristine one from which I would offer anyone a marshmallow that wanted one and have a set of tongs for them to extract it from the bag. That way their sudden craving for a marshmallow could be satisfied! Then the other bag would be for the challenge, and I would emphasize that these marshmallows have been recycled and not good to eat!

      The competition question is an interesting one also. I’ve been reading a lot about gender differences in learning (now–there’s a minefield of conflicting ideas). Some suggest that the boys enjoy competition and that it shouldn’t be removed entirely from instruction. One approach is to not make the challenge about beating other groups but by besting one’s own group’s personal best–so you run the challenge more than once and have kids learn through multiple tries. You can change the conditions of the challenge to encourage flexible thinking–one time they have to do without talking or may only speak in Spanish or everyone may only use one hand. Lots of possibilities.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

      • I have found that my middle school students, both boys and girls, really do enjoy competition. Being able to compete in a positive way (without getting too stressed out, angry, withdrawn, etc.) will be important in their work and leisure activities in the future, so I’m all for providing opportunities for healthy competition. But I also like to introduce activities like you mentioned, where they can work together to set a group goal and beat their previous time, number of points, etc. Whether they are trying to beat another team or their previous score, competition definitely seems to be a motivating force. If I can get them excited about who can correctly conjugate their verbs the fastest, I’m all for it. Why should athletics have all the fun?

        Take care and I’ll see you soon in Louisville!

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