Is Imagination Dead? They Quit the Marshmallow Challenge

In my day going to the office with Mom or Dad was a BIG stinky deal.
You wore your good clothes.
You were on your best behavior.
You smiled really purdy even when your Mom’s boss pinched your cheeks so hard you thought they were going to fall off (true story).

And if someone gave you a task, even if it was just for fun, by golly you worked hard so you wouldn’t embarrass Mom or Dad!

Today was the annual Bring Your Child to Work day at our office. It’s a terrific program our human resources staff organizes every year. Kids between the ages of 8 and 12 go from station to station experimenting and learning different aspects of science and engineering.

This year my group suggested running Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge.

Marshmallow Structure

I was beyond excited. I couldn’t wait to see the crazy structures these kids came up with!

How would they work together?
What would they do first?
Would the boys do better than the girls?
Would the younger kids perform better than the older ones?

It’s the end of the day now. A memorable day for sure. The experience has made me concerned about the creativity of future generations. Or maybe I’m just very naïve about the attitudes of kids today?

There were some glimmers of brilliance – our best group built a structure that reached almost 27 inches tall! Some kids were full of excitement and unique ideas that didn’t always work out. One young lady proudly declared, “My father is an engineer…” and then fully took charge of the group.

But those moments were overshadowed by a more
common theme: Quitting.

I was stunned by the lack of team work. To be fair none of these kids knew one another and certainly that makes it more challenging, but are good manners dead?

Some kids hogged the supplies! Fellow team members complained to the adults “they won’t share.” (I thought sharing was only a struggle for my toddler.)

Teams of all boys often broke the spaghetti into such tiny pieces they couldn’t build anything. And they were pretty darn vocal about it!

Teams of all girls, though not as vocal, sometimes became just as frustrated and worked independently of one another.

We noticed that when kids sat around the table instead of standing they were less likely to be successful.

Competitive drive was present to an extreme in some teams. In one session all three teams were so focused on beating the record 27 inch structure that none of them ended up with a working structure.

Very few teams iterated or tried to improve on a successful structure. Two different teams developed a working structure about 12 inches tall and declared they were done even though they had many, many minutes to spare.

We saw this during our dry run with adults too. After ten minutes the team had a working structure and four pieces of spaghetti left. They decided it was ‘good enough’ and forfeited the remainder of the time. The structure was over 19 inches tall. If they had kept going could they have reached 26 inches?

A total of 18 teams tried the Marshmallow Challenge today.
Only 6 built a successful structure.

I’m disturbed by all of this.

Sure not every kid is an engineer or designer, but I was surprised by the number of kids asking, “How do you do this?” and expecting a set of directions to follow.
Is imagination dead?

Should I have paid more attention to Hara Estroff Marano’s article, “A Nation of Wimps.” Is there is something to that?

Or worse is Laura Seargeant Richardson’s finding that kids are not getting enough play today spot on?

To think that the playful mind is dead scares me.
Is that what I witnessed today?

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