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Race to 20–part 2

As I said in the previous post (which was much longer ago than intended), Race to 20 is one of my favorite activities. Everybody can play. Everybody can talk about what they tried. Everybody can share what they noticed. I like the everybody piece of the activity.


Here’s a typical sequence I use for rolling out Race to 20:

  1. Give a brief overview of the game: The goal is to be the person who takes the last counter from the pile.
  2. Demonstrate the game: I like to use a document camera so that everyone can see how the game is played. Ask a student ahead of time to be part of the demonstration. I make sure to give him/her a chance to play the game with me, once or twice, before we demonstrate the game in front of everyone.
  3. Review the directions: Have the directions listed on a keynote or powerpoint slide, on a piece of butcher paper or chart paper posted up on the wall, or written on a white board or on an interactive white board.
  4. Demonstrate the game again
  5. Take questions, but do not discuss strategy
  6. Make sure everyone knows where the directions are posted
  7. Create pairs, pass out the counters, and set the timer for 5 or 6 minutes
  8. Wander and roam: I want to listen in on conversations and see how the groups are progressing.
  9. When the timer goes off, ask what did you notice: This question is asked to give everyone the opportunity to hear what other groups are thinking, what ideas have been tried, and what they are speculating about or thinking of trying. The purpose of this conversation is NOT to share your answer to this is what you need to do every time so you can take the last counter in the pile.
  10. Change groups: One partner stands up and shifts over two or three groups. I want the groups to share ideas and try new things. Changing groups helps. Set the timer for another 4 or 5 minutes.
  11. Wander and roam: This provides the opportunity to monitor how thinking is developing, who is collaborating, what strategies are being tried, and how frustration is being handled (that perseverance piece).
  12. Debrief: When the timer rings, the group chats again about what they notice and what they are wondering.
  13. Change groups again: The partner who didn’t move the first time, moves to a new group, and they are off for another 3 to 4 minute work session.
  14. Debrief: Ask a pair to come up to the document camera and play. I usually check in with a couple of groups during the work session and ask if they are willing to play a round of Race to 20 in front of everyone. I let the group or groups know who I will ask to play, prior to the timer ringing. Being able to watch another group play, after you have had some time to try out ideas is really important. Sometimes, I ask a second group to play, especially if I have quite a few groups who are stuck on one idea. It provides the observers the opportunity to focus on strategy and ideas, rather than their next move. After the round is over, ask the players to talk about what they did. Be sure and ask them to discuss how and why their decisions helped them, or didn’t help them, be the player to take the last counter from the pile.
  15. Return to the original pairs: Play for a few more minutes. It is important for everyone to able to try ideas out right away.
  16. Journal or exit card: Everyone records their current thinking to the question what is your strategy so that you will be able to take the last counter every time you play.
  17. Talk about it again tomorrow: I can pretty much guarantee that your kids will go home and play, look up information, and be ready take on the challenge of being able to take the last counter, every time.

So, now decide how you are going to handle tomorrow. 

Sometimes, we split into two groups; the kids who are ready to see if they have a strategy that will let them take the last counter every time, and the kids who need more time to try out ideas.

Eventually, we come to the conclusion that we need a new game because too many of us (read everybody) know how Race to 20 works.

Race to 20

One of my most favorite activities to use with groups is Race to 20. I have no idea if that is the real name of the game, or when or where I first ran across it. However, what I do know after using it for a really long time and with lots of groups of kiddos and grownups, is that it has an appeal that is pretty much about impossible to resist. I am pretty sure, like about 100%, it belongs to the family of NIM games.

Here’s the set up:

  • You need a partner and you need 20 counters. (unifix cubes, two-color counters, pebbles, square tiles, etc.)
  • Set the counters in a pile in the middle of the table


  • The object of the game is to be the person who takes the last counter from the pile
  • Each person may remove one or two counters from the pile on each turn


  • So, Player 1 takes one or two counters
  • Then, Player 2 takes one or two counters


  • And, Player 1 takes his/her turn
  • Then, Player 2 takes one or two counters


  • And so on, until all the counters have been taken
  • The person who took the last counter wins that round
  • Play again

The goal is to figure out the strategy so that you can win every time.

Give it a try.