Met·a·cog·ni·tion. Noun. Higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes, especially when engaged in learning.What can kids do with 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape, and a marshmallow? The answer is all about metacognition, one of my favorite educational concepts!
How the Marshmallow Challenge builds thinking and collaboration skills
The kids in groups of four were raring to go and could barely stand still to hear the staff’s directions: “Build the tallest free standing tower you can and make sure that the marshmallow goes on top.” They had 5 minutes to plan and 10 minutes to build. There was lots of talk and lots of action. Kids’ eyes were level with the tables, their bodies stood on chairs, and tape stuck their fingers together. Spaghetti towers went up, fell over and were rebuilt. The air was so thick with brainpower you could almost touch it.
The timer went off with a shrill ring. Students stepped away from their structures, and the staff swooped in with measuring tapes and read off the heights of the towers. Some towers tottered under the weight of the marshmallow – the young builders groaned, gasped and giggled as the towers stood their ground or collapsed.
The challenge was complete … almost. Hands shot up in anticipation of the questions routinely asked after Rec&Ed School Age Child Care (SACC) activities: What did you do? How do you feel about it? How can you apply what you learned to future experiences? One group answered, “Our tower fell over 3 times. Then we made it wider down here [pointing to the base] and saw when it was wider there it could hold the marshmallow up here [pointing to the top].” The kids were grinning ear to ear with pride as they pointed at their standing tower. “We used trial and error [a form of prototyping] until we got it to work," one child said.
Kids are natural collaborators who, thankfully, are not concerned with power dynamics within a group but consumed with the task at hand. This frees them up to try and modify an activity until they get the outcome they want or run out of time. Adults can skillfully guide kids in reflecting on the activity through discussion, allowing kids to recapture their experience and refine their understanding of what they did, why it worked or not and how they would change it in the future. They learn to connect their experiences to their ideas of how the world works.
Rec&Ed’s emphasis on best practice trainings for child care staff
This knowledge and activity sprang from a training I offered to SACC staff on the best practice “Planning and Reflection” Methods in Youth Program Quality. My training partner was Terri Strom from Peace Neighborhood Center. Through this annual training, Rec&Ed SACC staff have learned about Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (Plan-Do-Reflect) and know how to provide intentional experiences with explicit planning and reflection.
Terri and I were among a group of local child care program coordinators who trained to become educators in the Wiekart Center for Youth Program Quality Methods, part of the internationally known HighScope Educational Research Foundation.
Kids benefit from this experiential learning process in several ways. They develop their ability to plan, predict, make decisions and take charge of their own learning. They learn how to collaborate with each other to solve problems. These skills become natural and are invaluable in academic settings. These skills also last a lifetime!
I enjoy running this and other workshops for staff who work at local child care agencies (especially Rec&Ed SACC child care sites!) as part of the Washtenaw County School Age Child Care Association. I became president of the group several years ago and with the other members of the steering committee realigned our mission to offer relevant trainings to promote child safety, learning and enjoyment.
Next time we want to focus on prototyping as part of Planning and Reflecting, so maybe we will incorporate the paper airplane challenge…
For more information about the Marshmallow Challenge and other activities to stimulate learning, visit marshmallowchallenge.com/.
Robin Schultz-Purves serves a School Age Child Care Coordinator and Green Adventure Camp Coordinator. When she’s not in the office, you’ll find her rowing on the Huron River.