Science ideas for young children: The marshmallow test

Can a child resist temptation? Use marshmallows to learn about social science and economics.

When people think of science, they usually think of “hard” science, like biology, chemistry or physics. Social sciences are also very important to understand how the world works. Walter Mischel, a former professor at Stanford University, did a series of experiments with marshmallows and other snacks to learn about people think and how they make choices. Here is the basic experiment.

  1. Ask children if they want one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. See what they want and record the data. (Snacks can be changed, or it could be done with toys or other things.)
  2. Ask the kids to predict what might happen if you lengthen or shorten the time. Would you wait five minutes for two marshmallows instead of one? How about an hour? How about a whole day?
  3. What would happen if the reward changed? Would you be willing to wait longer for more marshmallows?
  4. Ask the kids to “auction” their time for more marshmallows. How long would they wait for 10 marshmallows?
  5. Would having one marshmallow now allow them to wait longer for more later?
  6. Do you think hiding the marshmallows in another room would make it easier or more difficult to wait? Why? How about if they were in a closed container on the table that you could see?
  7. Would it make a difference if you had to stay still and not do anything else but look at the marshmallows on the table? Why?
  8. What if you didn’t know how big the reward would be later? What if the situation was one marshmallow now, or more marshmallows in 15 minutes, but you don’t know how many?

The most important part of this exercise comes in reflection afterward. Talk to the children about how this might relate to other activities. Here are some questions to ask.

  1. How might this relate to saving money for something?
  2. What is the longest time you ever waited for something? Was it “worth the wait?”
  3. How do you decide whether a reward is worth the wait?
  4. Is there anything you would not wait for? “If I have to wait, it is not worth it.”
  5. Are some people better at waiting than others? Why? Do you think adults might be better at waiting than kids?
  6. Does waiting always give you a better reward?
  7. How does watching commercials affect your ability to wait for something?
  8. Do you think you could learn to wait longer for something? What might help you learn that?

As you can see, this simple social science experiment can be used for lots of discussion and learning. Michigan State University Extension recommends conducting this experiment within a family, in a day-care setting, as part of a school activity, a 4-H club or with any group working with young children. Have fun and learn about yourself and the children you work with. 

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