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And the Winner Is Play

Diana Kander, author of the New York Times bestseller All in Startup, Launching A New Idea, is likely an unfamiliar name to those of us outside business education. Yet what she has to say about creative thinking, problem solving, and collaboration is as insightful to those passionate about play as it is to business.

In her TED Talk, Our Approach to Innovation is Dead Wrong, she references fascinating research introduced by Peter Skillman that demonstrates the power of play. In the Marshmallow Design Challenge, teams of four are tasked with creating the tallest possible free standing structure using only 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of rope, and one marshmallow. The only design imperative: the marshmallow has to go on top. Teams have 18 minutes to complete the task.

The average height is 20-inches; among the MBA students, the average is 10-inches. Kindergarteners build two and one-half times higher, averaging 24-inches.

Her observations are telling. Business students spend their time doing what they’ve been taught: assigning roles and creating a plan. The operative word is “a”. With only one plan and no time spent testing, when the structure promptly collapses under the weight of the marshmallow, the team has no time to explore alternatives.

The five year olds, by contrast, play. And what fascinates me is her observation that they consistently start with the marshmallow and build structures that support its weight. They know there’s more than one solution and experiment to figure out what works best. Typically in the 18 minutes allotted, kindergarteners build four or five structures. Their hands-on playful experimentation and collaboration lead to success time after time.


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