5-6 yrs (kindergarten) 6-8 yrs (primary) 9-11 yrs (elementary) Activities PreK 3-5 yrs (preschool)

Cups & Sticks Challenge

A Structural Design Challenge

Description: With a few simple materials, children can engage in various structural design activities that will challenge their problem-solving skills, promote persistence, and foster creativity.

What tools and materials do I need?

  •  Lots of paper or plastic cups (all the same size, 3-5 oz. are best)
  •  Lots of sticks (such as craft sticks, popsicle sticks, or coffee stirrers)
  • 1 small block such as a toy block, piece of wood, Lego(R) piece, or small container/lid
  • Measurement tool (e.g., ruler or length of string or thread)
  • Small objects that could be placed in a cup to serve as weights (e.g., beads, pieces of candy, paper clips, marbles, pennies)

What should I do?

  1. Assemble the materials on a table or the floor where the child/children can easily work.
  2. Explain the initial problem.

Design & build a tall, sturdy tower. You can use only the cups and sticks provided. You cannot change the shape or size of the cups and sticks. Cups should not be nested together either. 

  1. Pose questions or make comments when the child reaches a stumbling block and cannot seem to move forward. For example:

○      Why do you suppose it keeps falling down?

○      How can you make it more stable?

○      What other stacking pattern can you try?

○      How can you make it even taller?

  1. Measure the height of the tower with a ruler if you have one. If you don’t, use a length of string or thread to assess the height. Compare various solutions and heights.
  2. If the child is still showing interest, increase the challenge.

Design & build the tallest tower you can using only the cups and sticks provided. This time, your tower needs to balance on top of the object provided (i.e., toy block, piece of wood, Lego(R) piece, or small container/lid.) Remember that you cannot change the shape or size of the cups and sticks. Cups should not be nested either.

6. See picture to the left for example. This tower is balancing on a small toy block of wood. You can use any object as a base for the tower to balance upon. 

7.     Again, use questioning to help encourage the child to be persistent in solving the problem. Point out that most new inventions have many failures before the best solution is found.

8.     Try adding weights. Ask the child to put some small objects (e.g., beads, pennies, paper clips) on top of the tower. How many can it hold before it collapses?

  1. Discuss the problem and solutions.
    • Why was it harder to build the structure when it had to balance on a small object?
    • Compare how your body feels when you balance on one leg versus two legs. What can you do to keep better balance when you are on one foot? Try applying that idea to your structure.
    • Which problem was easier to solve and why?
    • Were the sticks more helpful in one problem than the other? Why?
    • Why do people think about balance when designing structures?

Grade Level: Pre-K – 4

Age Level:

PreK 3-5 yrs (preschool)

5-6 yrs (kindergarten)

6-8 yrs (primary)

9-11 yrs (elementary)


Creative Thinking


Independent Activity


Parent-Led Activity




Student Success Skills


Sharon Brusic

5-6 yrs (kindergarten) Activities PreK 3-5 yrs (preschool)

Be Kind

Listen to a Story – Solve a Problem

Grade Level: Pre-K to Grade 1

Description: After listening to a story about kindness, children will talk about the story and then solve a hands-on design problem related to it. Children will use simple at-home materials to create their solution to the problem.

What tools and materials do I need?

  • Computer & internet connection to listen to read-aloud story
  • Assorted art and craft supplies (e.g., paper, crayons or markers, glue, tape)
  • Miscellaneous recyclable materials (e.g., colorful shopping bags, cardboard, empty plastic containers, toilet paper tubes)
  • Simple office supplies (e.g., rubber bands, paper clips, stapler)
  • One piece of whole fruit (i.e., apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach) or vegetable (i.e., tomato, cucumber, zucchini) or flower “gift” per child [see design challenge in step 3]

What should I do?

  1. Listen to the read-aloud of the storybook, Be Kind, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Jen Hill. Children will learn how to show kindness to others by seeing the many ways that it is demonstrated in the story.
  2. Talk about the story. Share examples of how kindness can be shown in your family or community. Help the children recognize how they have shown kindness. Can they think of times when someone didn’t show kindness? How did it make them feel?
  3. Present the children with the following problem. Modify it as desired to better connect to your family, friends, or neighbors. Change the gift item to whatever you have available (i.e., apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach) or some flowers or a vegetable from your garden. If the child is capable of making a decision, offer several options and let him/her pick. For example, “What do you think Mrs. Diaz might like better — an apple or a banana or a flower?”

Making gifts for others is a way to show kindness. I know a friend who really likes apples. She is sick. How can we hang an apple on her doorknob to let her know we care about her?
  1. Provide the children with assorted materials to design their solutions. They should creatively design a new product, not simply use an existing object as is (e.g., put the apple in a shopping bag or a flower in a vase). Encourage them to modify the materials they have to make a special gift. Having to think about how to hang it on a doorknob offers a unique engineering challenge that requires some additional problem-solving.
  2. Pose questions as the children solve the problem. Help them to think through the problem and come up with their best working solution. For example:
    • How can you attach it to the doorknob?
    • What would make the part stronger?
    • Is it the right size for the fruit, vegetable, or flower being used as a gift? Is it too big or too small? How can you fix that?
    • How will she know who put it there?

Deliver the gift to the friend when finished. Try to hang it on his/her doorknob. If it doesn’t work as intended, ask the child to modify the design or consider an alternative place to put it. Discuss how it felt to show kindness to another person.