Are children more collaborative and creative than adults? (Part 1)

Thursday, 22 March, 2012

“This class will help you unlearn, rather than learn. If you walk out of this class knowing less than you thought you knew, I have done a good job”. I use this phrase at the start of every class I run.

My role as a scrum trainer and coach is to lead people towards new ways of thinking, but as adults we struggle with this because of the mental baggage we have, which comes with age and experiences. In many cases, I only have one or two days to shake people’s brains up enough to start them even considering that is more than one way to solve a problem.

This next series of blog posts will cover some of the highlights from my recent visit to Cheriton Bishop Primary School in Devon ( The purpose of this trip was for me to test two theories; are children naturally more creative and free thinking than adults in problem solving scenarios? And are groups of children naturally more collaborative than groups of adults, when given a team task?

My gut feeling (and hope) before the visit was that children would come out on top in both cases, but I had little first-hand evidence to back-up my own instincts. My aim of this school visit was to play some of the games and simulations I run in my agile / scrum classes, but with an audience comprised of energetic ten and eleven year old children rather than battle-weary corporate professionals. Would the results be any different?

Please note, I’m don’t confess to having a doctorate in psychology or any other “ology” so the intent of this blog post isn’t to re-write years of scientific history and research into the human psyche here, it’s just an experiment which I created from my own curiosity.

Experiment 1: The Marshmallow Challenge

This is a well-documented design challenge that is commonly used by many scrum trainers (including myself) to illustrate the predictable and sequential approach most adults tend to adopt for construction-based problems. However, the statistics from the original TED talk are now dated, and I very much wanted to see with my own eyes whether children approach this task differently to adults.

The Theory 

For those unaware of the challenge format, teams of four are given eighteen minutes to build the tallest free-standing structure which supports a marshmallow at the summit, using only the following materials; twenty strands of dried spaghetti, one metre of string and one metre of sticky tape (measures have been changed to accommodate the UK system).

Adults tend to build their spaghetti structures in phases of design, analyse, build infrastructure, place marshmallow on top and cross fingers it stands up. Usually it doesn’t. The marshmallow is much heavier than people perceive and the structure they have build can’t support it. Because they place the marshmallow so late, they have no time or materials left to correct the structural weaknesses. A carbon copy of most waterfall projects, I think you will agree.

The original research claimed that kindergarten students had the best results overall in this exercise, as they prototype early and naturally iterate the design to improve it. Young children also don’t position for power within the team, they just get on with the task as equals. If you haven’t seen the original TED talk, I can highly recommend it.

So how did the ten and eleven year olds I worked with perform with this task? Well, firstly they seemed to have awful lot of fun with it. But they did seem to fall into some common traps that adults do.

Common Pitfalls for both Children & Adults 

I allowed the children to self-select into teams for this exercise and unsurprisingly the boys flocked together, as did the girls. There recent lessons in school had prompted them that triangles are strong – so most of the teams went with a pyramid structure, resembling the Eiffel Tower (a tall structure familiar to them) which is a similar train of thought for adults in this exercise. The girls tended to be more creative around thinking of different structures, other than just pyramid shapes.

One team of girls choose a telescope spire approach, which had the makings of a tall and stable design, but they failed to complete it as they ran out of sticky tape to make it stand up straight! Most of the teams wanted to outdo their friends and attempted to build an overly ambitious structure that was too weak overall to stay upright. They also failed to identify ways they could simplify their design to achieve a valid, albeit smaller structure. They were too driven by having the tallest structure, and as a result ended up with nothing at all.

This is another common pattern we see in software projects from greedy product owners / customers not content on using a “working” solution until all the bells and whistles have been added, thus losing out on precious user feedback and any market advantage they could gain from an earlier product release.

A perfect example of iterative design from Seth, Alfred and James (aged 11)

But it was one of the boy’s teams that seemed to have more of a completer/finisher instinct in this challenge. Seth, James and Alfred were the only team who had a marshmallow standing after the allotted eighteen-minute period. They started with a simple triangular pyramid, but they built another pyramid directly on top – something that would make most structural engineers grimace! I’ve recreated how they when about this in the diagrams below:


As the structure increased in height the marshmallow started to lean the tower over to one side, so they added supporting spaghetti in only where needed. A nice example of just doing the simplest thing that worked, and emergent design.

This structure really stood out for me as I have never seen adults attempt something like this, as our perception would be that this would be ugly and somehow illogical. I have used the boy’s  efforts as an example of creative thinking in my courses ever since.

Seth, Alfred and James with their creation

Disclaimer: all pictures have been used with the consent of the parents of those involved. Many thanks to those parents and the staff of Cheriton Bishop for facilitating my visit.