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It’s that time of year. Parents have plucked the back-to-school aisles clean and have watched their youngsters take hesitant steps toward schoolhouse doors. Teachers have arranged—and rearranged—classroom walls and curriculum plans. Everyone’s dancing an energized edge between nervousness and excitement. The slate stands clean. School starts again.
Going into this year, I see my teacher’s role even more as one of facilitator and coach. It’s my job to set the stage for learning and to allow my students to learn together in conversation with our course material. I want the kids comfortable enough to take risks—including those that make them uncomfortable enough to learn—and skillful enough to stay supportive of each other. Few tools help set that stage as well as improvisational theater games. Improv games can be active and energetic or quiet and reflective. They can prove simultaneously funny and poignant, challenging and safe. They build focus, self-awareness, self-confidence, empathy, and communication and problem-solving skills. They teach kids how to listen and how to speak, how to lead and how to follow. They help students work as individuals and as teams. In short, they build the dynamic I’m looking for.With this kind of activity as a baseline, the classroom becomes a place to seek out rather than a place to escape from. Here are 10 of my favorite improv games to use in the classroom, with some insider tips for making them extra-successful. Let me know how they help in your classroom (or workplace or family)—any further suggestions are more than welcome!
1. Sound Ball—Have the group stand in a circle. One person makes a sound—any sound—while also making a throwing gesture towards another person in the group. That second person then ‘receives’ the sound with a physical motion like catching a ball or a sack or a ray of light and—importantly—repeats the sound sent to them. Then, without hesitation, the first receiver sends a new sound with a new gesture to another person in the circle. Keep the sound moving quickly and boldly to get everyone involved. Insider Tips:
- Make sure to get the body involved and not just the voice. An active, athletic stance—like you would need if you were prepared to catch a real ball—helps loosen up the mind.
- Encourage kids not to predict or plan what sound they’ll make if the ball comes their way. Better to receive the one sent and then send a new one that emerges of its own accord.
- Make sure that folks do actively receive the sound sent to them before sending one out. It’s a great affirmation to the sender and helps build a spirit of generosity.
- Add in your own variations as your group gets better with Sound Ball. We’ve played City Ball, Vegetable Ball, Names that Start with M Ball, and so on. Keep encouraging folks not to have one waiting in the wings to use. Or, even better, let them have a response in the wings—but then choose another one in the moment.
2. I Am A Tree—This simple game came to me from the Stanford Improvisors, for whom it serves as a “home” game (the Stanford mascot is The Tree, a Palo Alto redwood). One person starts the scene on stage saying “I am a tree.” Another person joins them, choosing something or someone to interact with the tree. They might say “I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch” and clasp the tree person’s arm. Or maybe they say “I am the water running beneath the roots of the tree” and lie down on the floor to wriggle beneath the tree person’s feet. A third person then joins the first two, choosing their own related identity and action: “I am the lovers’ carving in the bark on the tree” while forming a heart on the tree person’s torso. At that point, the person who started the scene—here, the tree—chooses one of the others to take with her off stage (“I’ll take the lovers’ carving.”) and they leave the third person alone on stage. That person repeats their identity (“I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch.”) and two more come on stage to find connected identities to that person. This person who was left on stage alone—this second time, the jay—now chooses one of his or her own to come off stage and the cycle begins again. Repeat as needed. Insider Tips:
- If needed, encourage students to connect their addition to who or what has already been established.
- Each subsequent set of “beings” need not relate to the one that came before it.
- Once your group gets familiar with the game, it can make for a sweet conclusion to find a way for the last person to say “I am a tree.”
3. What Are You Doing?—One person stands in the middle of a circle so everyone can see and begins pantomiming an action. Another comes up to the first and gently asks “What are you doing?” The first person continues doing their activity until they come up with something to say that is anything but the activity they’re doing. If I was pantomiming starting a lawnmower, for example, I might say “solving a Rubik’s cube.” The second person then takes on that activity and the first person rejoins the outer circle. Soon thereafter, a third person comes in to ask “What are you doing?” and the game continues. Insider Tips:
- Make sure the questioner asks with honest and kind curiosity rather than with dismissal or sarcasm. It also helps to use the person’s name: “Hey, Jan, what are you doing?”
- Try to be realistic with the actions rather than cartoonish. How would you actually do that activity?
- Again, encourage kids not to plan ahead but to let the new idea emerge from the confusion of the action they’re doing.
- You may need to kibosh some suggestions intended to embarrass the next student (i.e. “I’m masturbating,” or “I’m taking a dump.”) Remind them that part of the reason you’re playing these games is to learn how to take care of each other.
4. Knife and Fork—Divide students into pairs, preferably with folks they don’t yet know as well. Let them know that you’re going to give them a phrase or item that they need to somehow create with their bodies without talking. They should hold their position until you give them the OK for the next item. You’ll be amazed at the range of creativity folks come up with. Good starter “tasks” include: fork and knife, peanut butter and jelly, bee and flower, train and station but have fun coming up with your own! Insider Tips:
- Keep them focused on their own creations rather than looking around at what others are doing.
- After getting a few under their belt, ask each pair to find another pair to work with and give them larger cues (i.e., “group of puppies,” “table and chairs,” “automobile and garage”). Put them in groups of eight and do the same (i.e., “muffins and tin,” “high school theater production,” “nursery school classroom”).
5. Space Walk—This super-adaptable exercise gets kids moving and thinking with their bodies. It also makes a great warm-up for writing. Clear out a good-sized open space in which everyone can move around. Invite students to walk comfortably through the space paying attention to their own experience: they can notice their breathing, their feet hitting the floor, their pace and so on. Let them know you’ll give instructions as they keep moving in a random pattern through the available space.From there, suggest different modes of “walking.” Walk as if the floor is covered with jello, glue, peanut butter, or sand. Walk as if they were wading through ankle-deep, knee-deep, or chest-deep water. Move as if they were on ice. Or try different types of “clothes.” Walk as if you had on boots or Mercury’s winged shoes or wheelies. Try different ages, from toddler to geezer, or different emotions, from eager or anxious to dreary or jealous. What happens if they try different ways of making contact with each other? Or if they use different statuses as they approach? What happens if they freeze and unfreeze? The possibilities are endless. Insider Tips:
- Suggest that students mix up how they’re moving around. If they’re tending toward the outside, head to the center. If they’re walking clockwise, try counter-clockwise.
- Folks should stay in motion: look for a space that needs filling and go there.
- Every now and then, go back to a neutral, “normal” walk—the contrast can prove insightful.
6. Failure “Ta-Da”!!!—So many of us remain terrified of failing or of making mistakes and that prevents us from even participating in discussions. This game builds a different relationship to failure. Here, each person comes in front of the room one at a time. After “claiming” the stage, that person shares with pride a made-up failure of theirs. Something like “I put a pair of new blue jeans in with my mother’s clothes and everything turned blue” is great—not completely inconsequential (like “I forgot to turn the lights off when I left home”) but also not devastating or traumatic (like “I ran over my dog…twice”). Once they’ve shared the ‘failure’, the rest of the group gives them a wild and rousing ovation in celebration. The person on stage should take a grand and vigorous, deep “ta-da!” bow, soaking in the applause to full effect. The game finishes when everyone’s had the chance to celebrate having ‘failed.’ Insider Tips:
- Make sure to explain why you’re playing this game before you play it or to debrief it afterward: we’re trying to create a new relationship to what we think of as failure. When we fail, it often means we’re pushing ourselves to develop new skills. It means we’re taking risks. And our so-called ‘failures’ can lead us to possibilities we never would have imagined. That’s all worth celebrating.
- Again, emphasize that the failures should be made up once the person gets to the stage. You don’t want to initiate a therapy session here.
- Often times, kids will shrink from the applause and will want to take a quick bow and run off stage. The whole point is to soak it in. What would it be like if we celebrated our failures?
Make sure to model what you’re looking for before they start. If they see you delighting in the exercise, they’ll give themselves much more permission to do so.
7. Mirror Dance—This game also needs students to find a single partner. Partners should face each other and establish a boundary line between them. That boundary serves as the surface plane of the mirror. At your signal, students should do their best to exactly match the movement of the other in the mirror. Have one student (student A) start leading and then, after a few minutes, switch leadership to student B. Switch back and forth a few times with diminishing periods and eventually let them share leadership. As with Fork and Knife, this game is best played without talking. Insider Tips:
- If you find students having trouble keeping up with their partners, strongly suggest that they slow down—the point is to move in synch with each other, as images in a mirror would.
- Encourage students to experiment. What happens if they vary their facial expressions as well as their gestures? What if they move away from the mirror? Or get down on the ground?
- Playing music in the background can help set the mood and get the kids more into a non-verbal space. Experiment with types of music: more meditative, soothing tones will slow the group down, more energetic and upbeat rhythms may call out bolder configurations.
8. Ad Game—One of the core skills of improv—saying “Yes, and!” to every offer—has a profound impact on creativity and shared inquiry. This game helps build that ability. Divide students into groups of five to eight or so. Have each group generate a few new products, ones that no one has ever seen before and write each on a separate notecard. Have them bring all the notecards to you and then go up to the front of the room one group at a time. Tell the players they are now an advertising agency, letting an eager public know about this great new product and how useful it is. Players should build on everything their teammates say, starting each sentence with “YES, and…” Once the first group has had a chance to shill their product, send the second group up and choose a new product for them. Insider Tips:
- Choose a suggestion card from a group other than the one that’s on stage so they don’t get their own.
- Hold them accountable to starting with “YES, and…” and to building on what others say.
- If they start to fumble or slow down, offer encouragement (“Tell us more!” “What makes it so special?”) without suggesting ideas.
9. Slide Show—For this game, two groups of students work together to create a slide show narrative for the audience. One group forms each “slide” by freezing in random positions at the middle of the stage and the second group—or individual “expert”—then explains what the image depicts. You can get a suggestion for the presentation from the audience (“This person is a world-leading expert. What’s their subject?”) or you can have it represent a family vacation. Insider Tips:
- Though the game works best when the slide-makers set the agenda and the narrators have to justify what they see, the narrators can inject their own spontaneity and hijinks by “realizing” that the slide is in backwards or upside down, belongs to a different set, or has some other problem.
- Encourage those making the slides to choose active positions, especially those where they’re touching each other. Working at different levels can be fun too.
- Once you’ve gotten the hang of the game, you can use it for infinite curricular variety. Maybe you make a slide show of World War II, of the most important scenes from A Separate Peace, or of the principles of geometry. Make it work for you!
10. Dolphin Training—I’ve described directions for this game before in this blog and talked about its implications for teaching and learning in general as well. Students have always loved Dolphin Training and have regularly employed its insights going forward into the semester. Insider Tips:
- Try this game early in a term to best reap the full rewards of its implications.
- If a ‘dolphin’ seems to struggle, pause the game and interview them for a bit: What do you know so far? When do you think you were closest? Without giving them answers—that will spoil the fun of their future accomplishment—remind them of the simple rules of the game. When they find some behavior that earns a ‘ding,’ they should do more of that behavior.
- If the ‘dolphin trainers’—i.e, your class—can’t get out of goofy mode or give inaccurate or confusing feedback, pause the game and send the ‘dolphin’ out of the classroom ‘tank’ for a minute. Check in with the group and make sure they’re committed to the game and to paying close attention before bringing the dolphin back in. The trainers’ skill and attention make a huge difference!
- Give them the chance to make explicit connections after a few rounds. What does this game demonstrate about teaching and learning? How will it affect how we work together here in this classroom?
Many thanks to all my teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have taught me these games. Thanks also to The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, an invaluable resource for anyone looking to make this leap.
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