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Small Group Exercise: The 20-Step Process

This exercise is inspired by the theatre game The Machine, where students work together to create parts of a factory machine with repeated movements and sound. In The 20-Step Process, we take this a step further by making a simple task comically complicated.

This exercise challenges small groups of students to think critically, problem solve, and create and execute a plan. It’s also a creative challenge — students can present their process in a variety of performance styles.


1. Divide students into small groups of 3–4.

2. Assign each group an everyday task, such as making a peanut butter sandwich, brushing their teeth, or filling up the car with gasoline. If you need some help with tasks, our outdoor prompt and food-related prompt lists are full of action ideas.

3. In their groups, have students write out a list of 20 steps — no more and no less — to complete the task. For example, making a peanut butter sandwich isn’t simply opening a jar of peanut butter and using a knife to spread it on bread. It might involve locating a magical pig to sniff out a peanut plant, digging up the peanuts, selecting only the peanuts with a particular set of measurements, washing the peanuts with special soap, extracting the peanuts from their shells, crushing the peanuts into a paste, adding salt to the paste, heating the mixture over a fire that is exactly 348 degrees… and so on for 20 steps, with the 20th step being the completion of the sandwich.

The steps can be as silly and fanciful as the students wish, as long as there are 20 steps — no more, no less. If students have difficulty figuring out the steps, they might want to try working backwards from the final step, or breaking down each part of the task into ridiculously small micro-tasks.

4. Once they have created the list, students will figure out a way to present it as a performance. Some ideas might include:

  • Create a series of 20 tableau scenes (one for each step).
  • Mime the 20 steps.
  • Do an interpretive dance of the 20 steps while a narrator describes the action.
  • Present the list in the style of a step-by-step instructional video.
  • Turn the list into a poem or song.
  • Create a comedy scene in which a teacher shows their students how to do the task using the 20 steps, or a group tries to follow the instructions written on a piece of paper for the first time.

Students may also pitch their own ideas on how they’d present their group’s list. All the movements and voices (as applicable) should be big and exaggerated.

5. Give students time in class to plan and rehearse their performances. If you want this exercise to be a larger project, you may assign part of the task as homework and have students practice at home and present the next day.

6. Students will present their scenes for the rest of the class.

7. After each group presents, students will complete and submit an individual reflection.

Click here for a free reflection.
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