Marshmallow Challenge

The marshmallow challenge is a classic problem-solving exercise.

On this page, you'll find everything you need to understand the point of this challenge and why kindergarteners can easily win against business school graduates.

Short Summary

The marshmallow challenge is a simple design exercise and team-building activity for small groups.

The groups have to build the tallest free-standing structure from some spaghetti sticks, tape, and string and place one whole marshmallow on the top.

Running the challenge requires about 1 hour and some simple household items.

The exercise teaches essential lessons about the creative product development process and the nature of collaboration.

The challenge was invented by Peter Skillman and popularized by Tom Wujec.

A group of young people are discussing around a table, and many of them are taking notes.
Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Rules for the Marshmallow Challenge

The rules are easy; in 18 minutes, each group can use 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow to build the tallest free-standing structure with the entire marshmallow on the top.

To run the challenge yourself, check out our detailed step-by-step instructions.

The teams can break the spaghetti and cut the tape and string into any sized pieces.

A team can also use the materials as much or as little as they wish. For example, if they can decide to use all or no spaghetti, the same applies to the masking tape and string.

The exercise should be done indoors, and each team should have a steady table.

This challenge needs to be friendly and encouraging. However, the following three instructions need to be strictly respected.

You Must Use the Entire Marshmallow

The marshmallow mustn't be split into smaller pieces and must be placed on the top of the structure.

Build the Tallest Free-standing Structure

The groups can hold the structure until the end of the exercise. After that, the structure with the marshmallow on the top must stand on its own.

The team with the tallest structure measured is the winning team.

Stop When the Time Runs Out

The exercise is 18 minutes long. Therefore, the teams must stop working on their structure at the 18-minute mark. After this, if a team tries to support their structure, they're automatically disqualified.

Ideal Participants

The marshmallow challenge is suitable for teams of all ages and backgrounds.

It can significantly benefit students, professionals, and organizations seeking engaging activities to enhance collaboration and innovation.

The challenge is helpful for teams to encourage them to think outside the box and brainstorm about a new idea.

It's a highly recommended exercise for teams new to agile project management.

Design Exercise And Team Building Activity

The marshmallow challenge helps the participants to improve their innovative and problem-solving skills by helping to discover the value of prototyping.

The challenge is also a great team-building activity; it improves team collaboration and communication.

The fun nature of the game will create a memorable experience for everybody.

How Do People Perform

Usually, first people orient themselves to the task, talk about it, discuss how it would look, and try to create some hierarchy within their team for who is doing what.

Then they try to create a detailed plan, neatly organize their materials, and start building.

They build the spaghetti sticks into ever-growing structures, taped and bound together.

And just before the time runs out, they place the marshmallow on the top. Most of the time, the structure collapses because of the unexpected weight.

Different groups perform differently based on their background. For example, business school students, kindergarteners, and architects deliver the most exciting results.

Business School Students

Business school students are constantly fighting for power; for them, it's essential to know who the project's leader will be.

Besides that, they are trained to find the single right plan for the task and then execute it.

During the challenge, they focus on breaking down tasks, spending most time planning who is doing what, the structure of the spaghetti, and how the tape and string would hold them together. And when they have almost no time left, they place the marshmallow on the top, and the crisis begins.

They don't try to build a mediocre structure just to see their plan works. Instead, they want to build the perfect one.

Kindergarten School Students

Kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures than their adult competitors.

Their secret is that they don't fight for power or plan the whole project. Instead, they build and build. Always keeping the marshmallow on the top. They build a higher structure than before.

They are building prototypes, continuously improving their already working structure with the marshmallow on the top. With new structures, they get immediate feedback about what works and what doesn't. This is the essence of the iterative design process.

Architects And Engineers

Architects also tend to overlook the weight of the marshmallow. Fortunately, they still build working marshmallow tower structures.

They understand that triangles and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns are the key to building stable structures to support more weight.

They already have the skills to build good structures.

What Can We Learn From This?

Most teams have a hidden assumption about the weight of the marshmallow. They're confident it's so light that their structure will easily hold it, and they wouldn't need to worry about it. When they try to place it on the top, to their surprise, the building collapses under its weight.

The marshmallow symbolizes the hidden assumptions about the project.

Every project has its own hidden assumptions nobody considers until the very last moment. They can only be discovered by building working prototypes that can be repeatedly improved to reach the best result.

Prototyping Matters

The exercise highlights the importance of prototyping and iterative design.

Successful startups use iterative design to get to the market fast and test their product's viability before shoveling more money and time into useless functionalities.

First, they identify the minimum viable product containing only the essential functionalities of their imagined final product.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Marshmallow Challenge?

The marshmallow challenge is a simple design exercise and team-building activity. The participants are split into smaller competing groups to build the tallest free-standing structure using spaghetti, tape, and string with an entire marshmallow on the top. The exercise teaches an essential lesson about creative product development and the importance of prototyping.

What Materials Do I Need for the Marshmallow Challenge?

You need 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow for each participating group. For example, 16 oz spaghetti, 1 roll of masking tape, 1 roll of string, and 1 bag of marshmallows should be enough for more than 20 groups.

What Are the Rules for the Marshmallow Challenge?

The rules for the marshmallow challenge are easy; in 18 minutes, each group can use 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, and one yard of string to build the tallest freestanding structure with an entire marshmallow on the top. Check out the step-by-step instructions about how to organize and run the challenge.

What Does the Marshmallow Challenge Teach?

The marshmallow challenge teaches an important lesson to build prototypes instead of trying to build the perfect solution. The participants have a hidden assumption that the marshmallow is light, and their spaghetti structure can easily support it. They only focus on building one perfect structure without trying to build a simple one to test their assumptions. Their structure collapses when they place the marshmallow on the top at the last minute.

Every project has its own hidden assumptions that can remain hidden until the last minute and then ruin the project. Therefore creating working prototypes as early as possible is crucial.