In advance, randomly distribute dozens of ‘marshmallows’ between two lines spaced about 10-15 metres apart.
Place many ‘marshmallows’ close enough so that people can step from one to another easily.
Gather your group behind a line identified as the Start zone.
Challenge your group to traverse the area between the two lines by stepping only on the marshmallows.
Invite individuals to traverse the area first, using any path they choose.
If a person happens to touch the area outside of the marshmallows, invite them to restart.
Next, invite two people to cross together while keeping physical contact at all times.
Again, if someone touches the ‘no-go’ zone, invite the pair to restart.
Finally, form small teams of 4 to 6 people.
Challenge these teams to cross the area together while keeping constant physical contact.
In conclusion, invite your group to reflect on their experience in terms of how they offered and received support.
Video Transcript for Marshmallow River
presented by Nate Folan
So just taking a look so that you have this idea… You’ve got a Start line, the green webbing, an End line, the white webbing, and in between the black spots, the rectangles that are here in that regard.
I want to have you look at it two different ways. One is if… and I have special shoes on right now and I want you to know that. They can handle high temperatures. But out among this space where the floor is between the green and the white is a hot chocolate river. The foam rectangles are marshmallows and they help us go from Point A to Point B to cross this river without getting scorched by the heat of the hot chocolate. Is that making sense so far?
And what we’re going to do is explore the different ways that we can cross this and see as we progress that perhaps it might become more challenging and what you might learn from that opportunity or how you work with one another. Okay?
So very simply the first invitation from the… behind the green webbing, going towards the white, is individually can you make your way across going from marshmallow to marshmallow, making your way to the other side.
So the invitation is solo, by yourself, when you’re ready you can try that. Any path is open, and I invite you to go now.
(people crossing the Marshmallow River)
You’ve made it. So moving back in this direction… Some of you might have made it but some of you might have actually touched the hot chocolate. Has anyone touched the hot chocolate? Did that happen for anyone? Yeah. Maybe a little bit.
So this time going back the other way… This time though if you touched the hot chocolate, the space that’s not the marshmallow, the foam rectangles here, simply the invitation to go back to the start.
So when you’re ready, again solo. And when you’re ready you can choose any path you want. It might be the same path that you chose, it might be a different path.
(people crossing to other side of Marshmallow River)
Moving forward to this now granted it might be nice to travel with another person. And that’s the invitation. And this time going from the green to the white, using again the marshmallows, the black foam rectangles, is this time you’re going to cross with a partner. The thing is between you and your partner you need to be in physical contact the entire time.
So if we could demonstrate a couple of brief… in different ways that people could be in physical contact with one another. Could you demonstrate that? Great, so here’s one, holding hands. Great. Connecting a foot to a hand. Great. Very nice. You’re on a roll. You got one more for us? Shoulder to shoulder, hands on shoulder.
Lots of ways to be in contact with one another. And again this may be challenging but now you also have someone there for support, and perhaps a lot of it might have to do with communication to make your way across in this regard.
So from here moving forward you and your partner physically connected in whatever way seems right or challenging for you, and know that you can make a switch. However you need to be in contact in order to be able to move forward. So when you’re ready, physical contact, making your way across, again working towards this.
(people crossing to other side of Marshmallow River)
… groups step off the marshmallows and they were so good they owned it. They went back to start and reattempted. They even apologised to each other.
So at this moment we’ve been framing this as Marshmallow River… hot chocolate river, it’s hot, there’s marshmallows here. I want to reframe it just a bit to put it in a different context.
So let’s envision that this is where you are as a team, and we’ll actually have some sub-teams form. And let’s do that now. If you could form groups of say four to six people.
So here’s the reframing. Instead of the Marshmallow River, the hot chocolate river, in that piece is envision yourself as a team working on a project. This is where you are at the start of that project whatever that might be. On this end here is the end product that you’re going for, the end result whatever that might be. Maybe it’s something actually physical, maybe it’s something that’s more about the dynamic of the group that you’re working on here.
And in between there’s a lot of different paths that groups can choose and take represented by the stones. And you might even think about these as what keeps your group aloft and helps you achieve your goals.
Something might have just popped into your head right now.
I’m not going to ask you what those are. At the end I’ll ask you what it was, what things helped your group cross.
The challenge here for you in your small groups of four, five people is to be physically connected and that’s every single person on the team as you make your way from the white webbing this time to the green webbing. Try not to touch the ground as well as trying to stay connected the entire time in that regard.
And as you go if there is a disconnect it’s a moment to pause and reconnect. If there’s a step to the ground, it’s a moment to stop and actually return to the start to reassess what’s happening here and then continue working to move forward. Is that making sense, and any questions?
Alright. If you need to take a minute to strategise to determine how to go that’s great, otherwise I would say hop to it and see what happens.
(people crossing the Marshmallow River)
So you progressed… you all progressed in a similar fashion kind of stepping there seemed to be some patience and things like that. And you might think about or even share with each other in just a moment what it was that was helpful crossing, what allowed you to cross as a team, stay connected without touching the ground…
I want to invite for one more crossing as you go, and this time within your teams of four or five is to choose at least two… actually I should say simply two project leads. Project leads would be able to see. The people that are simply as part of the project team can no longer see.
So the invitation is simply shut your eyes in this case and be guided by the two project leads that are able to see. Everyone can speak in this manner. A variation to this might be that some people could speak, some people couldn’t, but in this case everyone can speak. You have two project leads that can see and everyone else would not be able to see.
And I would just check in to make sure that everyone is comfortable within their roles, whether it’s eyes shut or eyes open and if you need to switch players on teams so to speak to make that happen.
(people crossing to another side of Marshmallow River)
How To Play Narrative
In advance, fill a large open space between two designated end zones with dozens and dozens of ‘marshmallows,’ which is just another word for ‘stepping stones’ (see Leadership Tips tab for options.)
The distance between each zone and the spacing between all of the marshmallows will determine the level of challenge you will be pitching to your group. The further apart they are, the more difficult the challenge will be.
The only proviso is that you place many of the marshmallows within the slightly-over-stretched stride of an average person. There needs to be at least one obvious, realistic path between the two zones.
When ready, ask your group to gather on one side of the zones, possibly behind a line or rope, etc. Establish this as one of the two safe zones, and announce that you want the group to traverse to the other safe zone.
Regardless of the way in which you may frame this experience (see Framing Ideas tab to understand why we call the stepping stones marshmallows,) most people will know what comes next.
Instruct your group to move from one side to the other by only stepping on the delicately-placed marshmallows in between.
To begin, invite individuals to traverse the area on their own. Not necessarily one at a time, but corporately as a group. Explain that they are entitled to tread any path they choose to get from one side to the other.
At this point, reiterate the required parameter of only ever touching the marshmallows. Invite everyone to negotiate a second crossing and, this time, to really focus on not touching into the ‘no-go’ zone.
When ready, ramp up the challenge and ask two people to cross together while physically connected to one another in some manner. The challenge is identical – traverse the area safely without touching the ‘no-go’ zone.
Finally, if time permits, ask your group to form into small teams of 4 to 8 people. Their task is the same, and naturally, each team member must remain in physical contact with the group at all times. If one or more people happen to be isolated from the group at any time, instruct their group to start over.
If you have pitched the challenge appropriately, there will be plenty of opportunities for communication, collaboration and trust to be exercised and developed. So be sure to find the time to invite your group to reflect on what happened, with particular emphasis on how people supported one another.
Practical Leadership Tips
You have many ‘stepping stone’ options. From simple props such as sheets of newspaper, carpet tiles, and rubber poly spots, to much more sophisticated versions of foot-print sized blocks of wood or ethafoam. Ideally, choose an object that elevates a person’s foot off the ground (by 10 to 30mm) because it will be much easier to identify when someone touches the ‘no-go’ zone or not.
Further to above, beware the propensity of some stepping stones to slip when weight shifts on and off them. Aside from the obvious safety issues involved, you ideally want the marshmallows to remain in situ at all times. Feel free to replace certain marshmallows to their original positions when necessary.
As with many group initiatives, you can nominate a time frame within which you want your group to solve the problem. Or not. While there is value in timing each crossing, focusing on the development of team skills and trust for most groups is equally, if not, more important.
Observe the existence, or lack thereof, quality control, ie this is just another word for integrity. If you happen to observe a lot of touching into the ‘no-go’ zone that goes unchecked, bring this issue to the attention of your group. This could be a useful debrief point, particularly, if this behaviour reflects the cultural preferences of your group.
You could integrate Marshmallow River as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to manage their emotions, thoughts and behaviours in different situations and to achieve goals.
Specifically, this activity offers ample opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
The complexities of this fun traversing exercise invite group members to interact and engage with each other in a manner that would necessarily speak to the benefits of having developed a set of supportive and healthy behavioural norms in advance. Or, if not, you could focus on any less-than-desired interactions or outcomes to explore what sorts of behaviours your group would prefer to see and commit to in the future. For example, you could invite your group to reflect on a variety of full value behaviours such as:
How did the group demonstrate its ability to care for self and others?
How did the group make its decisions? How were all members involved?
Was having a contingency plan a part of its goal-setting discussions?
What types of leadership were demonstrated during the exercise?
Was adaptability a key component of the group’s success, or not?
Were there moments of accountability that concerned you? Why?
Limited Steps: Invite individuals, pairs and small teams to traverse the area in as few steps as successfully and as quickly as possible. Allow ample time for people to plan, experiment and accomplish this task.
Blind Vision: Invite or randomly choose one or more people in each small team to be blindfolded and/or mute.
Crossing Paths: Divide your group into two, and ask each half to start from opposing safe zones, ie they may cross in the centre. The goal is the same, to safely transport every person to the other safe zone, but note the propensity of one half or both to assist the other, or not.
Simile: Take a look at Stepping Stones for a similar group initiative in which the group has the ability to place their ‘stepping stones’ wherever they choose as they traverse.
Playful variation of the Stepping Stones initiative.
Watch Your Step
Progressively challenging group initiative using ropes.
Through The Wringer
Fun group initiative that rewards action & creativity.
Useful Framing Ideas
When presented with two or more paths to travel, which do you choose? The heavily worn path or the path less travelled? This next exercise will invite you to consider the consequences of choosing one path over another and what support mechanisms are necessary to be successful…
Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a very large mug of hot chocolate. And sprinkled on top are dozens of very small marshmallows. As we all know, marshmallows float just as you can see before you. Further imagine that as a very small person, you had to attempt to cross from one side of this mug to the other. Let’s see what that might look like…
One of the most difficult skills to master is that of discipline and focus. Most of us are good at it for short bursts of time, but generally speaking, it takes a lot of effort and disciple to remain focused on a particular task for long periods. This next task will certainly challenge your group to stay on task. Indeed, the penalties for not keeping focused may mean the difference between success and failure for your group…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this dynamic team-building exercise:
What did you notice during this experience?
Did you always admit to touching the ‘no-go’ zone? Why or why not?
In what ways did you offer, or were you offered support during the traverse?
What does integrity mean? What does trust mean? Are these attributes related?
How do we know when integrity is compromised? Can you provide examples?
The inspiration for Marshmallow River, and many other fun group initiatives, was sourced from the following publication: