The Playful Classroom: Leveraging the Rules of Improv to Promote Engagement, Community, and Creativity — By April Nickell

In my previous blog post, I discussed the important benefits of play in the lives of children and looked at the definition of play. An essential quality of play is that it is spontaneous. In this post, I look to improv principles and games to support classroom engagement, build community, and foster creativity.

When people hear the word improv they often think “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” but really we improvise all day every day. Responsive teaching is improvisation. Even the more playful version of improvisation is something we have been doing our whole lives. When my niece tells me that I am a dog and she is the pet store owner, I have entered an improv. When I sit with students, and we think about what could happen next in a shared writing experience, we have all entered an improvisation. Even when we read and make a movie in our mind letting it morph as we understand more about the story, we are improvising.

Although improv is something we do all day every day, let’s consider how we might use it strategically to support student learning by borrowing more formalized “rules” of improvisation. Improv in the classroom is a wonderful way of providing opportunities for students to learn through play. By playing, students move their bodies to promote engagement and support cognition, build community, self-awareness and self-confidence, and foster thinking skills like problem solving, reasoning, flexibility and creative thinking.

One of the country’s oldest and most famous improv theaters, Second City, has an education program that did a study bringing their work into Chicago public schools. They found that teaching the rules and activities of improv increased the involvement of reluctant writers, strengthened classroom community allowing previously marginalized students and students with special needs to take on more positive roles, and increased overall engagement, which led to increased confidence in speaking and reading. And it was fun! To bring these benefits found in improv to your classroom, consider practicing the following “rules” of improv.

Rules of Improv Classroom Considerations

Improv Rule #1: Give and Receive offers

An offer can be anything that is said or done in the improv setting. If I turn to you and say, “I love the sombrero that you are wearing!” you have been given the “gift” of pretending you are wearing a sombrero. Imagine if we had a classroom where every student understood it is their job to contribute and share offers of their own thinking. When we have time and space to playfully, creatively, and physically practice offering our ideas, we have more ideas! When we continuously have the experience of having our offers received, we gain confidence in our own unique ideas. We as humans enjoy a challenge and instinctually increase the level of difficulty when things get too easy. In the case of giving and receiving offers, as students get more proficient in making offers that are fun to receive, students will begin to make, ever increasingly, more interesting and complicated offers, which deepens students’ creativity, writing, and storytelling capacity.

One way to practice giving and receiving offers is with the activity called Zip, Zap, Zop. In this activity, there is a burst of energy with a clapping gesture, and/then one hand pointing somewhere at the end of the clap. This gesture is linked with the words “zip, zap, zop.” Students stand in a circle and first practice the gesture and then practice saying the words repeated in tempo. As we begin, the first student says “zip” while doing the gesture (and making eye contact) toward another student, who then says “zap” with the clap gesture to another student, who says “zop” with the clap gesture to another student. This continues while students get faster and faster. In this activity, students practice focusing, waiting their turn, eye contact, team building, self-awareness, as well as alliteration and short vowels, all while practicing the rule of giving and receiving offers.  There are many possible modifications to this activity. For instance, if students are struggling to use more diverse vocabulary in their writing, this game can be played replacing “zip, zap, zop” with synonyms for words such as “said” (whispered, shouted, announced, etc.) or “happy” (joyous, giddy, gleeful). If students are practicing “tr” blends, the game could be played with “train, tree, try” or any other target sounds.

Improv Rule #2: Don’t negate

Now, I love this one. In improv, we never say “no” to an idea. If I tell you “I love your sombrero,” you don’t say “I’m not wearing a hat!” In improv, saying “No” may be funny, but it ends the game or the scene. Saying “yes” allows it to continue and build. This is the same with all storytelling, whether we are writing independently or cooperatively. Saying “no” shuts us down. There is a time for critical evaluation, but we tend to bring the inner critic right away and this can squelch creativity and momentum, not to mention create a very limited set of ideas. Can you imagine if every time you offered an idea, everyone’s first response was “Yes!”? How liberating!

A great way to introduce and practice not negating is with a game called “Yes, Let’s!” This activity can be played sitting in seats and participating from the waist up or can be done standing and moving throughout the classroom. One person makes an offer such as “Let’s dance,” and the rest of the students say “Yes, let’s,” and begin to dance until someone makes a new offer. Maybe someone else says “Let’s pretend it is pitch black,” “Yes, let’s,” and they start reaching out slowly. “Let’s rub our bellies and pat our heads!” Etc. etc.

Because the cognitive process actually includes the body, a learning benefit to this activity is that the game could give students an opportunity to physically experience a variety of classroom content. For instance, if you have just covered westward expansion offers could include: “Let’s pack the wagon!” “Let’s dig for gold” or based on a book (Three Little Pigs): “Let’s build a straw house!” “Let’s huff and puff” or a science unit (Solids, Liquids and Gases): “Let’s move like water,” “Let’s float like a balloon,” and so on.

If your students are struggling with retelling, you could play “Yes, let’s” after an interactive read aloud using the events in the story. To scaffold the activity, you could start with your think alouds, which include synthesizing and retelling while reading, and afterwards be the only one (at first) to make the suggestions in “yes, let’s,”then slowly release that role to students as their retelling skills improve.

Improv Rule #3: Make the ensemble look good

In improv there is no competition within the group. All effort is made to not only accept each other’s’ offers, but to make each offer look good, as though it was what we all had in mind all along. Making a joke about an idea or making someone look funny may get a laugh, but it is never as much fun, clever, or satisfying as keeping the game going. It is natural to want some competition. In improv the competition is with yourself or sometimes the “audience,” but never within the ensemble, who always on the same team.

One way for students to practice making each other look good is with a game called Mirrors. Students work in pairs facing each other. One student begins to move, and the other student is to mirror them exactly. As they get better, the objective is to be so in sync than an observer cannot tell who is leading and who is following. When students get really good at this they can begin to seamlessly tradeoff who is the leader without any signals, but just by reading each other’s’ intentions.

If students are struggling with making eye contact, taking turns, or both leading and following in partnerships, you may consider playing Mirrors. Or if students are more concerned with making themselves look better than someone else, you may consider playing Mirrors with a few people in a circle instead of just pairs, and have the rest of the class try to guess who the leader is.

Some extra benefits to this activity are eye contact, beginning partner work, taking turns, focus, and self-awareness. It can serve as a foundation to negotiating who speaks first in partner talk and paying attention to equal time speaking and listening.

Improv Rule #4: Yes, and…

This is the most important rule of all. It essentially holds every other rule. In improv not only is it important to give or receive an offer without saying “no,” it is crucial that you add something to it. This rule creates an environment where every single student understands that they also must contribute and build on each other’s’ ideas, not just their own. It also forces flexible thinking. For example, I may have thought the story was going to go a certain way, but when I am forced to accept it and add to it, I must stretched my own thinking in response to what I was given. If I say “I love your sombrero!” YES may be “Thanks,” but YES AND might be “Yeah! I couldn’t find my umbrella this morning, but this hat is so big it kept me dry.”

A great way to practice this rule is the “Yes, and…” game. It is basic, but has many possible applications. One person makes a statement. The next person says the words “yes, and,” then adds another sentence. Each person actually says “yes, and…” to force agreement and remind them to add something. This can be done in shared writing, to summarize after a read aloud, or to review content. Perhaps you want to help students with linking words in essay writing. You can write the target words (First, in addition, for example, etc.) on cards, and students must now say “Yes, and in addition…”, “Yes, and for example…”.

Yes, and… in many ways holds all of the rules of improv. When I am in classrooms trying this work for the first time with a group of students, I write the words “yes, and…” on the board and help students understand that this is the most important rule of all collaborative effort. When it is presented as a rule to a game, I have found students readily accept it and immediately begin saying the phrase as often as possible! It can be a remarkable experience to watch students give and receive offers, without negating or showing off, and add to each other with “yes, and…”

The activities included in this blog, and many other improv activities, not only support the benefits of play for children, but support aspects of CCSS and reading and writing workshop.  Improv activities give students the opportunity to practice taking risks, exploring new ideas, flexible thinking, and sharing ideas publicly, all of which are essential in writing. Because much of this work involves imagination and pretending through story, it supports many reading comprehension skills, including envisioning, empathy, retelling and making connections, as well as highlighting elements of genre. Furthermore, improv activities help students with Language Standard 3: practicing effective choices for different contexts, Language Standard 4: using vocabulary in speaking and listening, and all of the Speaking and Listening Standards offering students opportunities (1) for a range of conversations and collaborations; (2) to integrate and evaluate visual and oral information; (3) evaluate the speaker; (4) present information orally; (6) adapt speech to various contexts.

The following books were used as resources for this blog and are a great place to look for more ideas, as well as

  1. Spolin, V. (1986). Theater games for the classroom: A teacher’s handbook. Northwestern University Press.
  2. McKnight, K. S., & Scruggs, M. (2008). The Second City guide to improv in the classroom: Using improvisation to teach skills and boost learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Lobman, C., & Lundquist, M. (2007). Unscripted learning: Using improv activities across the K-8 curriculum. Teachers College Pr.

One thought on “The Playful Classroom: Leveraging the Rules of Improv to Promote Engagement, Community, and Creativity — By April Nickell

  1. Hi April,I hear on the radio that Cambridge Univ. is looking to hire a professor to research the concept of play in education!  Cathy Smith 148 Pacific Avenue #2 Pacific Grove, CA 93950

    831-402-7753 cell

    Be the good

    From: growingeducators To: Sent: Wednesday, June 17, 2015 3:18 PM Subject: [New post] The Playful Classroom: Leveraging the Rules of Improv to Promote Engagement, Community, and Creativity — By April Nickell #yiv3373632022 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv3373632022 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv3373632022 a.yiv3373632022primaryactionlink:link, #yiv3373632022 a.yiv3373632022primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv3373632022 a.yiv3373632022primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv3373632022 a.yiv3373632022primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv3373632022 | Growing Educators posted: “In my previous blog post, I discussed the important benefits of play in the lives of children and looked at the definition of play. An essential quality of play is that it is spontaneous. In this post, I look to improv principles and games to support clas” | |

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