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Why Improv Is Not Just For The Stage

We all improvise every day, and children are the ultimate improvisers. Through play and connection, improv games nurture brain development and bolster social-emotional learning. Here's how to do it. Plus get our E-Book: 10 Minutes of Play For 10 Days!

By Maja Watkins

To improvise or to “improv” is to stay flexible and “go with the flow” with whatever curveball is thrown your way. When you think about it, we all improvise every single day. Every conversation we have and every moment we embrace, we use improvisation because we can never determine exactly how each situation is going to pan out. 

Children are the ultimate improvisers. I mean, let’s face it, they are experiencing everything for the first time, and not only do they tackle each new adventure with bravery, but they also do so with an active imagination that creates beautiful and unexpected moments on the spot. As parents, we know that children keep us on our toes … just like improvisers do on stage! 

Using Improv For Brain Development

To warm up for a big show, improv actors play games to help them stay present, which prepares them to step on the stage with zero written material and make scenes and sketches out of thin air. While working with children throughout my career on social goals and life skills like flexibility, communication, impulse control, and staying on topic, I had a lightbulb moment: If actors can use improv to prepare them for their gigs, why couldn’t children use improv to prepare them for the biggest gig ever … life?

I conducted a year-long research project using improv games to teach life skills found in The Brain’s Playground: Using Improv Games To Teach Social and Emotional Learning, and my findings were extraordinary. Improv games enhanced children’s ability to socialize in an organic and natural way. Children who never before asked for playdates were wanting to have friends over. Children who barely spoke a word in public were having conversations with their peers. It was one of the most exciting times in my journey using improv games with children. I could see children connect the dots in their brains, allowing them to understand empathy for others which made it possible for them to have stronger relationships. 

In addition to brain growth, playing improv games builds rapport. Think about it: When a baby laughs or smiles at you for the first time, an instant connection is formed. When children, parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends play games that make one another laugh then that relationship is taken to a whole new level of trust. To laugh, just like to cry or show any other emotion, is vulnerable. Expressing emotions is not easy for everyone and laughter is such a special way to let ourselves connect and break down some of those walls we build around ourselves when meeting new people or even when hanging out with our closest friends. 

Playing Improv Games

Improv games are designed to stay light and creative. When playing an improv game, it’s encouraged to be present, letting go of what you are about to do and what you just did. When our bodies and minds are in the “now” moment, it gifts us the opportunity to think on our feet. 

Improv games can easily be played in the car, at the dinner table, in a waiting room … wherever you can use your imagination, you can play improv games! Imagination, like anything else, can only be fully developed through practice. Luckily for all you parents out there, children help teach YOU to be imaginative and playful!

Here are some things to remember when playing improv games: 

  •  Include your child’s ideas within the play.
  •  Listen to your child, and they will most likely listen back.
  •  “Go with the flow” - Be flexible and open-minded.
  •  Focus on saying, “yes, and” instead of saying “no”. An example: A child is running across the yard, and a parent or peer says, “I love that you're practicing for the race!” Instead of saying, “No, I am not racing,” which ends the game, the child could say, “Yes, and you are my coach!” Using “yes, and” expands the imagination!
  • Other than intervening for safety reasons, pick your battles! Undesired behaviors may come up during these games since the games themselves work on social skills and behaviors. Remember to focus on the play.
  • Use the term “new choice,” to encourage your child to think of a new idea on the spot, incorporating the improviser’s mindset. For example, if your child says “stupid,” rather than reprimanding them, state “new choice.” Repeat the statement, “new choice” until the child expresses a more appropriate word like “goofy!”

Playing improv games with your kids, free of devices, even for just 10 minutes a day for 10 days straight, will decrease attention-seeking behavior and increase laughter, joy, and fun. How can you do this? With our new e-book full of games that bolster social-emotional learning in children (and adults, too)!

Grab Your 10 Minutes of Play For 10 Days! 

Learn social-emotional skills with improv games!

Parents Play Guidebook: 10 Minutes of Play for 10 Days
Parents Play Guidebook: 10 Minutes of Play for 10 Days

Parents Play Guidebook: 10 Minutes of Play for 10 Days

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