11 Creative Marshmallow and Toothpick STEM Challenges

STEM Challenges can be low cost ways to incorporate learning concepts in your classroom or maker space. One classic favorite of mine are marshmallow and toothpick challenges. We started a Creator Club a few weeks ago. Our kids meet once a week to do hands-on learning projects. We have kids from 4K to 4th grade. As you know that range is wide in abilities. The great news is that there are plenty of activities to do with wide ranges of children. Our first week we dove right in and taught the students how to use hot glue guns so they could build craft stick truss bridges.  This past week we had so much fun creating with marshmallows and toothpicks. I created a list of challenges that I dug up from the internet to use. After a successful Club, I thought you might benefit from this list of ideas, too!

A few tips before you try this activity: let your marshmallows get stale. I opened my bags two days early and that was enough to help them get a little crusty and help them stand up better. Because we’re closing in on Valentine’s Day, we had a little fun with some heart marshmallows I found! Using themed marshmallows adds an additional element of interest. We had no problems keeping the interest for an hour with these challenges. Finally, keep some of your marshmallows fresh. In an effort to curb uncontrolled eating of marshmallows, I told the kids that I had fresh, soft, non-crusty marshmallows for them…I don’t think a single kid ate a crusty marshmallow. They did ask me repeatedly for the “good” marshmallows – but I’ll take that over sugared up kids! I handed out marshmallows about 2/3rds of the way through the club time, when I noticed they were getting a little restless. The quick treat break had them back to building in no time and they were engaged and focused even after eating!

We did not get through ALL of these challenges in one night…but I’m happy to have these ideas all in one place for the next time around. Hope it helps you save some time, too!

  1. Build one dimensional shapes. For younger students this is a great way to reinforce basic geometry. Shapes that worked well for us included: triangle, square, rhombus, rectangle, trapezoid, parallelogram, pentagon, hexagon.
    Idea from: Arvindguptatoys.com

    Source: arvindguptatoys.com

  2. Build three dimensional shapes. The kids went crazy over these. Building pyramids, cubes, prisms, tetrahedrons, and rectangles (I believe the geometry term is hyperrectangle). These small structures were great opportunities for the kids to explore support. Some recognized immediately that their shape wouldn’t stand up with out connecting enough marshmallows and toothpicks. It took others a little longer. We found fun in the falling – but reward in determining how to get it to stand on its own.
    Idea from: Arvindguptatoys.com

    Source: Arvindguptatoys.com

  3. Create letters. I see so many opportunities for this from practicing the alphabet to spelling names, to snap words. It may also help reinforce letter structure for those students that sometimes struggle with forming letters. Idea from: Fantasticfunandlearning.com

    Source: Fantasticfunandlearning.com

  4. Build a house. The kids built simple houses at the beginning, but it didn’t take them long to begin experimenting with adding on and growing their houses (and tree houses!).
    Idea from: Simplydesigning.porch.com

    Source: Simplydesigning.porch.com

  5. Build a tall tower. Using our shapes in #2, we discussed the importance of stability in a structure. They built towers using different three dimensional shapes. We discussed the strength found in a triangle. A prism shape worked well for creating taller towers.
    Idea from: Classroomfreebies.com

    Source: Classroomfreebies.com

  6. Build a bridge. Once you tackle towers, bridges are a natural transition. This is a good small team exercise.
    Idea from: Meredith Vance

    Source: Pinterest.com

  7. Build a pyramid. Just like the bridges, this is a project best suited for small teams. Students can be challenged with limited marshmallows and toothpicks, or limited by time. This helps them stay focused and on task.
    Idea from: Almostunschoolers.blogspot.com

    Source: Almostunschoolers.blogspot.com

  8. Create animals. We loved this challenge! The kids created birds, lions, pigs, long dogs and other unique animals.
    Idea from: ApartmentTherapy.com

    Source: Apartmenttherapy.com

  9. Design a snowflake. We’re still in the thick of winter, so a snowflake challenge fits the mood around here! I thought the kids would be more excited about this one, but I think if I had older ones they would have gone crazy.
    Idea from: Julie Bennett

    Source: Pinterest.com

  10. Create a sculpture. I often try to build in time to free build. Sometimes I set a theme such as plants, animals, fruit, vehicles, buildings, holiday themed (Valentine’s Day!). Other times I just let them build.
    Idea from: Amazingmess.com

    Source: Amazingmess.com

  11. Make a constellation. I loved this idea when I spotted it on pinterest. Students love talking about space. Combining a natural interest with a STEM project can be great fun.
    Idea from: Artsymomma.com

    Source: Artsymomma.com

5+ Ways To Crush Boredom In Your Classroom

Are you tired of your students whining about being bored? Children have beautiful, naturally curious minds. But when those creative minds aren’t challenged, it quickly turns to whining and complaints. Captivating your students can be fun. Learning can be exciting and engaging! We have a few tips to help you stretch your wings and help turn those classroom protests into cheers. Or at least not whining, which is okay, too! Over forty years in classrooms from fourth to eighth grade taught me a lot about engaging students in learning. Worksheets almost never worked. What did work? Authentic, hands-on, creative lessons that made learning come to life. Here are some ways to get started!

  1. Have some fun! It’s okay to enjoy your time in the classroom. Not every moment must be spent serious and focused on the task at hand. If you have a high whining incidence happening in your classroom: Check yourself first. Are you feeling stressed about something? Are you trying to pack everything in. Set aside a few minutes to be silly with your students. It doesn’t have to get out of hand! Kids go crazy for Would You Rather…We’ve also had great fun with numbers while waiting (in line for specials, lunch, recess, the bus)! We like games that you can do on the fly – maybe it’s choosing one child to give you two numbers to add or multiply. Maybe it’s counting by 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, 15s! Have them chime in and see who can get the furthest with their skip counting. {A pinterest board with some game ideas!} Or have some fun with words like Meridith @fromtheteachersdesk — she made a play on words for her students to help them remember! Play works for all children. It cuts right through boredom EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
  2. Get Out of a Rut. We’ve all been there. Grateful that you’re teaching that grade for the second, third, tenth year…it’s less prep for you, and you have tested and tried what works (and eliminated what doesn’t!).It might sound terrifying…but consider stepping aside from your trusty plan. Studying oceans? Turn your classroom into an underwater exploration complete with a “submarine” your student scientists climb aboard to do research! Cover some of your lights with rolls of blue clear plastic. Create a wall-scape or bulletin board that shows the areas of the ocean that receive different amounts of light, maybe even include a display of our tallest land features (buildings, mountains) to show just how deep the ocean is! Populate your wall-scape with sea creatures common and unique…Have a Sea Harvest Day where students bring in a recipe made from ocean delicacies (also a fantastic way to incorporate cultures and how many populations depend on sea life for their primary food source).  Yes, it will be more work, but even middle schoolers benefit from the interactive, hands-on learning approach.
  3. Make it Authentic. Create fun activities that reinforce boring concepts through the use of games: a stock market game, a hamburger shack where students hone their math skills, escape games for the classroom that encourage teamwork and critical thinking, games to reinforce probability, fractions and decimals (ours involve shooting wadded up paper at garbage cans and counting – and eating – candy) (these are all at our TPT store). Simple acts of incorporating a little more meaning into what could otherwise be dull, repetitive work turns your classroom from boring to exciting in no time!
  4. Give Up Control. Yikes. Did I really just say that?! Yes. I did. And I know it is not always a popular concept. A controlled classroom (and children) is a productive classroom. Ohh, but it is painful for children to be trapped. Give them options for alternative seating! Wobble chairs, bean bags, poofs, fuzzy bath rugs, mini bicycles, exercise balls, standing desks, anything to let them choose a little freedom. These don’t have to be an all-the-time option (in fact, sometimes limiting it to certain work times can make the seating even more effective!).This is true for your lessons, too. We found so many ways to incorporate lessons into our Makers Space. That’s a whole new level of letting go of control, but the rewards are students who will amaze you with how they grow. Yes, they can learn how to use hot glue, screw drivers, drills, hand saws, sharp scissors, sewing machines and more!
  5. Make it a Challenge. Kids LOVE challenges. Even the most non-competitive students will find something to enjoy if you give them a challenge. We’ve studied physics by doing a roller coaster challenge. Teams are given a supply list and a budget. They can then choose their supplies but must stay in the budget (including track – or pool noodles!, a roller coaster card – a marble, tape, etc.). From there they build their roller coaster but must keep their cart safely on the track! Students learn speed and velocity, gravity and more through trial and error of building their track.We’ve also built a Sail Car with similar concept as the Roller Coaster Challenge. Teams get a given set of supplies and they must use the Engineering Design Principle to make their car travel the farthest or to a finish line. Students can easily be frustrated when their first attempts don’t work, but they develop persistence through trial and error, and bettering their prototype until the final race day!In our Makers Space, we built cardboard and duct tape boats and ACTUALLY LAUNCHED THEM on a lake. The only limit to these challenges is your imagination, and even then, we’d be happy to help you if you feel like you don’t have any ideas. So…there are no limits here!
  6. Get Out of the Classroom. All of your learning could be done in your classroom, but it doesn’t have to be. Tight budgets and testing pressures often make us feel like we need to be strapped to our desks, shoving knowledge into our students at every possible moment.The beauty of children is that learning will occur in any environment. They naturally and readily soak up information while engaged. Find ways to get out of your classroom. That might look like doing messy science on the playground blacktop. Maybe it’s walking to a local nature preserve, library, town museums, fire department. It might even be full day field trips to historical landmarks, science or history exhibits, natural sites, local businesses, the post office, your state capitol building…and more. {Another pinterest board here!}Fourth grade was my favorite age to teach for a variety of reasons, but one big part was the opportunity for field trips. I grouped our trips by location so we state capitol building and a cave on the same day. On another day we explored an Ice Age Center where we learned how glaciers formed our natural topography, we also visited an effigy mound park made by Native Americans who once populated state. On another trip we visited a dairy museum (because we’re known as the Dairy State) and Aztalan park, another historical landmark that pointed to our state’s history.I planned multiple day camps for 7th and 8th graders where we did team challenges, ropes courses, learned to cook meals and clean up each night, we told stories and sang songs, we studied nature and explored. Where you live has a particular value that you can incorporate into your classroom. Seek it out and get out of the classroom.As a last resort, use technology to bring your field trips inside. Although I really believe in getting your students out of the classroom, there are just some things you probably can’t do because of location, cost, or maybe even bureaucracy of your school system. Make a way.When you put student learning first, there’s always a way to make it work!
  7. Clear the Clutter. I’m notorious for being a slob. My classroom always smelled like feet. Okay, maybe that wasn’t on me! My natural tendency leans towards chaos (#4 above {Give up control} isn’t too hard for me!). It drives my wife insane. Despite this natural tendency for mess, I have seen first hand how clearing some clutter helps students relax, focus, and whine less.At the end of the day today, take some time to look around your room. You spend hours decorating and, especially in the younger grade levels, you need a lot of support items. Is there a way you can reduce the noise a bit? Can you tuck some tools into a cabinet, or cover with a blank space. Do you need all of your posters hanging up or could you rotate them throughout the year? As difficult as this is for many of us, because we LOVE ALL THE COLOR!!!! — I challenge you to tackle this with fresh eyes. Take a few steps towards streamlining your classroom today. Your students will breathe easier and be ready to work harder.

Do you like this topic? Do you want to learn more? Give us some feedback! We’d love to help empower you to stretch and grow in your classroom so you can love going to school every day…and your students will be happy to be there too! Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest for new ideas.