A popular teambuilding activity for all ages

Print: Toxic Popcorn Instructions and Toxic Popcorn Supplement

Student Instructions


A can of highly toxic popcorn has contaminated a circle approximately 10 feet in diameter. The
toxic area makes a cylinder that extends to the ceiling. If the poisonous popcorn is not
transferred to a safe container for decontamination, the toxic popcorn will explode and destroy
the population of the entire city. You do not have time to contact authorities and evacuate the
city. The lives of thousands of people are in your hands, and you must act immediately.
Inside the circle you will find two cans. The unsafe can is about half full of the toxic popcorn.
The safe can is to be used to neutralize the toxic popcorn.

Picture 77


In 30 minutes or less, transfer the toxic popcorn from the unsafe can to the safe can using only
the materials provided to you.

Materials (per group of four to six students)

  • Three pieces of rope (each 7 feet long)
  • One bicycle inner tube


  1. No participant may cross the plane of the circle with any part of the body. If this occurs, the person must be taken to the hospital immediately and may no longer participate. One member (the EMT) of the group is responsible for the safety of all members and watches to make certain no one enters the circle. If a member crosses the line, the EMT must remove that member from the group.
  2. No participant may sacrifice himself or herself to aid in the transfer of popcorn.
  3. If any popcorn spills, it will explode, and the mission has failed.
  4. Participants may only use the materials provided. However, they can be used in any way desired.
  5. The popcorn will not spread its toxicity to the safe can, the ropes, or the tube. The participants have no protection inside the imaginary cylinder created by the 10-foot diameter circle.
  6. The safe container may move anywhere in or outside of the circle. The unsafe container must stay inside the circle and may not be moved more than one foot from the center of the circle.

Remember, the popcorn must be transferred within 30 minutes, or there will be a tremendous disaster.

Teacher Information

Total Materials (per group of 4-6 students)

  • Masking tape for ten-foot diameter circle
  • Two 1 lb coffee cans, one half filled with popcorn
  • Three pieces of rope each 7 feet long
  • One bicycle inner tube ((you may get these for free at bike shops if they are unusable))

Activity Notes

  •  Give the group some planning time with no action e.g. 5 mins, then start the clock and indicate its time for action, e.g., 15 or 20 mins.
  •  If someone breaches the toxic waste zone, indicated by the circle, enforce an appropriate penalty e.g., loss of limbs (hand behind back) or function (e.g., blindfolds if a head enters the zone) that lasts for the rest of the game.  If a whole person enters the zone, they die and must then sit out for the rest of the activity.
  • If the group struggles to work out what to do, freeze the action and help them discuss.
  • If the group spills the waste entirely, make a big deal about catastrophic failure (everyone dies), invite them to discuss what went wrong and how they can do better, then refill the container and let them have another go.
  • Ideas for varying the level of difficulty:
  1. Adjust time-frame
  2. Adjust distance between the buckets
  3. Include obstacles between the buckets
  4. Include red herring objects in available equipment

Teachers practice the activity at a Hydroville Summer Institute

Initial Discussion Questions

  1. What reactions did you have when you realized your importance to the overall team?
  2. What was the impact of having team members available (and willing) to help you?
  3. What impact did the time deadline have on your effectiveness?

More Processing Ideas

1. How successful was the group? e.g. consider:

  • How long did it take?
  • Was there any spillage?
  • Were there any injuries? (Often in the euphoria of finishing participants will overlook their errors and seem unconcerned about injuries and deaths caused by carelessness along the way.  Make sure there is an objective evaluation of performance – it is rarely ‘perfect’.)

2. How well did the group cope with this challenge? (e.g., out of 10?)

  • What was the initial reaction of the group?
  • What skills did it take for the group to be successful?
  • What would an outside observer have seen as the strengths and weaknesses of the group?
  • How did the group come up with its best ideas?
  • What did each group member learn about him/her self as a group member?
  • What lessons did the group learn from this exercise which could be applied to future situations?

Teachers practice before doing it with the studentsVariations

  •  A chemical reaction can be created by putting baking soda in the neutralization container and vinegar in the toxic waste container.  When combined, they froth. (Toxic Waste Dump)
  • Object Retrieval is a variation in which a group needs to retrieve a heavy object from the middle of a circle, without touching the ground in the surrounding circle (Rohnke, 1994).
  • Divide the group into leaders and workers.  Leaders can talk but not touch equipment. Workers cannot talk but can touch equipment.


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