Illustration by Bauke Schildt
Illustration by Bauke Schildt

Long before Amy Poehler became famous for her comic roles as Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live,” and as indefatigable bureaucrat Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation,” she was a college freshman looking for something to do outside class. During her first week on campus, she auditioned for the school’s improvisational theater group, “My Mother’s Fleabag,” and discovered a passion. “Everyone was getting to act and be funny and write and direct and edit all at the same time,” she writes in her memoir, Yes, Please. “My college life sort of exploded in happiness,” she adds.

What Poehler found liberating as a performer — the free-wheeling, creative and judgment-free nature of improv — is what makes it an appealing way to learn.

Improvisation is well-known as comedy and entertainment, but during the past decade it has grown as a method of teaching and learning as well, says Robert Kulhan, adjunct professor of business administration at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, and CEO of Business Improvisations. Today, improv is offered in the theater departments of many colleges and some high schools, according to Kulhan. As well, improv troupes around the country offer short workshops to school kids on specific subjects, and teach the basics of the art form in afterschool programs and summer camps. ImprovBoston, a 30-year old nonprofit comedy theater, sends staff into local schools to perform assemblies and share the fundamentals of improv to teachers and students.

The first rule of improvisation is “yes, and,” meaning that anyone’s contribution to the group discussion is accepted without judgment. “We always talk about the four ‘c’s of improv: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication,” says Deana Criess, director of ImprovBoston’s National Touring Company, about how she teaches the form to seventh-graders. To persuade students to abandon their fear of mistakes, she insists on unconditional support to all answers, then works to build trust among the group and invite risk-taking. “Once we have confidence in our ideas and in our teammates, we can free ourselves up to have fun,” she says. “So support, trust, risk, confidence and fun. That’s what improv is all about,” Criess says.

Improv enthusiasts rave about its educational value. Not only does it hone communication and public speaking skills, it also stimulates fast thinking and engagement with ideas. On a deeper level, improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking — that internal editor who crosses out every word before it appears on a page — and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses, Criess says. Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others.

“It’s one of the few opportunities they have to truly create something, and have a voice that isn’t prescribed for them,” Criess says about students engaged in an improv exercise. And the form’s imperative to be fully “in the zone,” as Kulhan puts it, is a rebellion against the interruptions and distractions of our modern, high-tech lives.

Improv is especially beneficial for atypical kids, no matter their stripe. It helps children with learning and physical disabilities develop a sense of play, and enables the socially awkward intellectual to socialize more easily, Kulhan explains. Run-of-the-mill introverts, who might be reluctant to raise their hands or audition for the play, also gain from the experience, Criess says. When they know they’ll be supported no matter their answer, introspective kids thrive. “Introverts give improv its richness,” she says, adding that many improv instructors identify themselves as introverts.

Facilitators at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education's Big Ideas Fest 2014 conveyed the improv mindset for solving problems and learning new ideas.
Facilitators at ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest 2014 conveyed the improv mindset for solving problems and learning new ideas.

And improv is liberating for those in fields like science, where emotional detachment is critical for success. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University offers a graduate course on improv to help emerging scientists convey their ideas without resorting to textbook speak or one-sided lectures. “Improv helps the scientist re-engage with their own passions in their work, get out of their head and connected to the needs of the listener, be able to respond more freely, spontaneously and flexibly,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the improvisation coordinator at Stony Brook.

A Student’s Perspective

Lilly Hartman, now a junior at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, took her first improv class in eighth grade, and remembers thinking it seemed cool but kind of nerve-wracking. Her first few times on stage she felt anxious about what her peers would think of her, worrying that she might do something foolish or embarrassing. But the more times Hartman did it, the less self-conscious she became, and the quicker she began to trust her own ideas and to think on her feet. “It’s about deciding to go with the flow and acting on what’s around you, and making decisions based on that,” she says. “And then feeling good about those decisions,” she adds.

Unlike the classroom, where the learning environment is often tense and competitive, an improv setting builds enthusiasm among the participants, Hartman explained. “When you’re performing, it’s not competitive,” she says, and the trust that the performers build with one another is rewarding in itself. Acknowledging that math and English classes teach important skills, Hartman says that her improv work has been more personally transformative. “Improv helps you change on the inside,” she says. Without it, “I would be a more scared and quiet person,” she says. In fact, she adds, “I wouldn’t be the same person.”

Improvisation Exercises

Improv works cumulatively, so that a group ordinarily starts with a simple task and moves on to more challenging assignments once they’ve loosened up and begun to trust one another. Kulhan offers these two simple introductory examples:

One-Word Story: In this exercise, a group of individuals tells a cohesive story one word at a time. It starts when one person says a single word, and unfolds when someone else in the group offers up another word. Groups can do this in circles, so the participants know when it’s their turn to talk, or at the will of the teacher, adding a randomness to the exercise. The improvising continues until the group has created a story. “It takes a lot of focus, concentration, adaptability, flexibility, attentive listening, etc., just to create a single sentence … let alone a whole story,” Kulhan says.

Conducted Story: This is more advanced than the one-word story. Here, participants form a line with the teacher up front, who behaves like the conductor of a line orchestra. When the conductor points to a student, that person talks for as long as the conductor remains pointing — perhaps just a couple of words, or maybe a few sentences. But as soon as the conductor turns to another student, the first talker must stop immediately and allow the second speaker to take over the narrative. The conductor moves haphazardly, forward and back through the line, lending even more unexpected twists to the story.

Variations of improv are also useful in helping revitalize a sleepy or distracted class or to introduce more proactive kinds of learning:

Shakeout Exercise: Together, the teacher and class stand at their desks and count backward from eight to one — then seven to one, and six to one, etc. — saying the number out loud as if it’s the most important word they’ve ever heard. While counting, they also shake their right hands in keeping with the number. Then they do the same series of countdowns while moving their left hand, then their right leg, and finally their left leg. “It’s superpowerful,” says Criess, “and doing it together can teach kids and adults it’s OK to look foolish in front of each other.”

Living Wax Museum/Historical Talk Show: Students pick an important historical figure to research, and later “become” that person, improvising answers to questions posed by fellow classmates, visiting parents or the talk-show “host”.

An Aid for Teachers and Schools

Inviting kids of all types to engage together in improv exercises reinforces the values that most schools seek, Criess says. With its emphasis on support and acceptance of all ideas, improv’s “yes, and” code penetrates social tribes and teaches kids to see the positive in their peers, creating a healthier climate at school. “It helps kids be positive community members,” she says.

Facilitators at ISKME's Big Ideas Fest 2014 conveyed the "Yes, and" mindset for solving problems and learning new ideas.
Facilitators at ISKME’s Big Ideas Fest 2014 conveyed the “Yes, and” mindset for solving problems and learning new ideas.

Training in improv may help teachers be more effective as well. Criess began learning improv while working in a preschool for children on the autism spectrum, and found herself applying the lessons from theater to the class. “What I was doing there with adults is exactly what these kids needed,” she says. Improv class helped her work with the kids on their level rather than according to a preconceived idea about what they needed to know.

It also reminds teachers that listening and responding to students, and adapting to their needs, is more educational than obeying a rigid teaching plan, Kulhan explains. “It’s communication based on observation, collaboration, and not teaching with blinders on,” he says. Teachers might also find that kids are energized and more attentive after engaging in simple improv exercises that induce everyone to look ridiculous together.

But does “yes, and” diminish one’s ability to think critically? Are there limits to all the right answers? “Improv says yes to the idea of ideas,” Criess says. Not every original thought will turn into the next invention, but offshoots of that first idea may lead to better ones, she explains. “Let’s agree to have ideas,” she says. “And set up a culture where risks are encouraged, and greeted positively and with respect.”

  • Brian Silberberg

    This is a fascinating idea, and seems like a great way to get kids to spark their creative energies. I think this is especially great for middle-to-high school age kids for helping them get over potentially feeling self-conscious in the classroom and social life by making being ridiculous or at least out of the box, an asset instead of a liability.

    • Segway

      It is fascinating Brian. I am lucky enough to teach middle school drama, and the favorite activity is Improvisation. I am most thrilled when I am able to help shy and communication apprehensive students find confidence and a voice to who they truly want to be….

  • Wendy Everard

    LOVE THIS. I practice Writing Workshop, based on Nancie Atwell’s teachings, with my 8th and 10th graders at Cazenovia High School, and so much of what’s in this article already informs our practice in class! It has revitalized my classroom! And those four tenets –creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication — align with the “21st century skills” now being extolled in education.

  • Michael Zhuang

    This is not just for kids. This is for grownup as well.

  • Bwin51

    I like.

  • Absolutely not just for kids. With my company LifePlays, I’ve been using Applied Improv in MBA programs, major tech companies in Silicon Valley, and internationally. Improv is a great “low-stakes” way to practice new ways of collaborating. You can then take the skills into The Real World and reap the rewards–teams that flow, a new level of openness and trust, and more innovative and creative processes and solutions.

  • Leif Gustavson

    Check this out for more on Improv, learning, and teaching, including discussions on what yes…and looks like in the classroom; the dangers of no…but; and how to trust your impulse as a teacher and student. http://www.writingbasedcurriculum.com/improvisation-teaching-and-learning-part-1/

  • Katy Chase

    Wonderful piece on the world of improv for young people! My husband and I own a kids-only improv school in Studio City, CA where we teach students ages 4 to 18 (www.studioLOL.com). It’s incredible to see how much the kids really love class and tell us they “live” for their 90 minutes of improv a week. We sometimes want to say, “Uh, you guys know you’re using your brains and, like, learning stuff here right?” But instead we just keep all these benefits a big, fat secret from them since they’re having so much fun. We’ll pass along this article to their parents, though! Thank you for writing.

  • Brad Newton

    My troupe, Kidprov, has been using improv as a teaching tool for over 20 years performing curricular-based improv shows for students as well as providing teacher training opportunities. Also, my other troupe, HIMprov, has connected the principles of improv to our walk as Christians. We do shows, run 6-week classes and one day improv experiences. I have yet to find the end of improv…

  • Hmoser

    I began using improv in the classroom about 8 years ago after taking impov classes at ImprovBoston, which changed my outlook on life. Every year when I begin with storytelling unit with my 6th grade English students, I use all of the above activities listed. I move my tables against the wall and have my kids sit on floor. I share the “Rules of Improv” and why I use it in the classroom. I also create a classroom where kids are willing to take a risk. I make it very clear we are here to support one another and here to allow others to take a risk. If a student can’t handle an activity, I ask that student to leave the room. I begin each class with a warm up activity and move onto a improv game that works on a specific skill. My shy students look terrified during the first few classes, but I make sure to share my story on how I used to be the kid in class that didn’t talk and then I share how improv changed me. Sharing my personal story helps these kids change their mindset and grow as a learner. Instead of thinking…No, I can’t do that. They begin thinking, “Yes!” My favorite is when I use improv the last week of school and my students who used to be the shyest in class are now the ones raising their hand to participate first in a imrpov game. I truly believe all middle school and high school ELA teachers should try using it in the classroom. It teaches voice, intonation, the art of storytelling, characterization, plot mapping, and of course it instills confidence. If you haven’t tried it, I say, “Yes, And!”

  • Patricia Sciortino

    I am so happy to see Improvisation introduced as a wondrous tool for growth in so many areas. I run an improvisational play program called “Enter Laughing,” a means of social/emotional and executive functioning development for Twice-exceptional learners, those with high cognitive gifts and learning differences. It taps into their strong verbal intelligences while remediating their challenge areas. What no one mentions is the laughter. It is a natural way of social bonding and a great motivator to learn the skills of improvisation. All of us who offer improvisation as a means of development offer the opportunity to develop the disposition of an artist: collaboration, compromise, awareness of the other and sharing a reality. I used to be a classroom teacher and a drama teacher and improvisation was a staple of my classroom, to explore concepts of what we were learning and in drama, learning active listening and staying in the moment. Most kids are thrilled to use their own ideas without adult direction, another great motivator. Finally, learning to “follow their fear” of looking foolish with the understanding that no idea in improv is wrong. If you say it, it is true. This means of development is a passion of mine and can be used in so many domains. Besides the laughter, what most amazes me is learning the different broad-based knowledge of each population I work with. I promise any improvisational coach is learning right along with their students. I am thrilled to hear of so many using this authentic means of development.

  • MiddleWeb

    Here’s an article at MiddleWeb by former principal Sue Stephenson, who describes how she and a team of teachers helped 7th graders prepare and perform standup comedy
    routines, all the while learning serious writing, speaking and personal
    living skills. Video link included! http://www.middleweb.com/14010/ha-ha-building-serious-skills-using-stand-comedy/

  • Great article. Love to collaborate some day!!!

    I am a founder of Improv 4 Kids in NYC. We have presented over 4000 shows in K-12 schools DC to Boston since 2004. And our workshops and residencies rock. Amazing how kids respond. They far surpass the teachers’ and parents’ expectations. The biggest thing for education we fill the gad where this new test-taking world leaves off. The kids are so busy preparing for tests they are no where learning how to prepare for life. Improv is the coolest and funnest way to teach interaction skills (Listening, Focus, respect etc), public speaking and creative thinking. Fuunny all these also make them better test takers and learners. On my blog NEW YORK IMPROV THEATER we attack some of the same issues. WTG!!!

  • HallDavidson

    Improv for a staff or district. For the staff, district or classroom, as much as for students. Excellent experience. Get a good coach (just like any PD!). I did improv for years when I was teaching. And before.

  • Engaging Educator

    Preach! This is EXACTLY what we are about at The Engaging Educator http://www.theengagingeducator.com! Yes and so much more!!

  • Kelsey

    I think improv is a wonderful way for kids to grow safe around their peers and feel like all of their ideas are important. In most schools, it is hard for kids to speak up and share their thoughts for fear of being laughed at or proven incorrect. Going through improv exercises would provide every child with the chance to see that what they are saying is important, people care, and that they should care what their peers are saying as well. It would be a good idea for all schools to offer an improv class or maybe implement it into part of their english classes. This would help students to gain confidence and become attentive listeners to others while also fostering ideas of their own.

Author

Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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