Improv – The Art of Play



What does it take to make playtime with your child more fun? Maybe the secret lies with those crazy guys on the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

I'm on my knees. My six-year-old daughter and I are staring into each other’s eyes. I slowly raise my left arm. She moves her right arm in perfect imitation. I turn my palm face up. Again she copies. She then slowly tilts her head. Now I follow her. We keep moving in perfect harmony for several minutes. If you were watching us you’d never be able to tell at any time who was leading and who was following. When we stop, she says, “Good one, Dad!”

We’re playing a game called MIRROR. It’s one of several games that I learned while taking classes in improv (which is short for improvisation). I signed up for improv classes with The Second City Training Center because I’m not a naturally spontaneous person. I prefer to plan and organize everything I do or say, and that sometimes causes me to miss opportunities. So I started taking improv for me, but I soon realized that the most valuable thing I was learning was a way to have more fun with her.

Improvising is doing something with no preparation or planning—making it up as you along. Since it’s impossible to write a script for everything I do and say, even I improvise every day with little thought and no formal training. Improv simply takes that a step further. It’s a collection of games (yes, that’s what they call them) that improv players use to relate and interact with each other in ways that bring out their creative, playful, and entertaining characters.

The first time I did improv with her, all I trying to do (with little success) was get her to bed. Let’s just say that she’s not the most goal-directed person when it comes to putting on her pajamas, washing her hands, and brushing her teeth. So in desperation that evening I said, “let’s play a game called ‘Pajamas, Hands, and Teeth.’ Whatever you do, I’m going to do, just like I was your mirror.” To my amazement, we had a fast, fun transition to bedtime. And we both really enjoyed it. Now we play it several times a week. When I told Kate Porterfield (a PhD Child Psychologist at the New York University Medical Center and, coincidentally, my instructor at The Second City) about “Pajamas, Hands, and Teeth” she wasn’t at all surprised. “Think about it relationally,” she said. “You were telling her through your actions that what she was doing mattered enough that you wanted to do it with her. And you made play a natural part of the activity.”

I was on to something. If improv could make daily chores with her fun, what could it do for our playtime? Since she loves telling stories, I next tried a game we played in class called CONDUCTED STORY. I played the conductor and she and her Mom were the storytellers. I picked a story title—“The Day the Dogs Stopped Barking.” I pointed to her, and she began making up the story. After a few sentences (and in the middle of one), I pointed at Mom. She stopped and Mom continued the story, starting with her last word. After a few more sentences I pointed back to her. Back and forth it went until the story reached its (somewhat) logical conclusion. We’ve played the game many times since, and the best stories seem to happen when she and Mom listen closely to each other and build on each other’s imaginative ideas. Porterfield particularly likes CONDUCTED STORY for kids because they can enjoy creating something together with the parent.

Two of the secrets to successful improv are the ideas “Do Not Deny” and “Yes And.” That means when playing an improv game with your child, take what he or she says and does as true—and then build on it. That’s what I now do when I play any pretend game with her. She creates the scenario. One of her favorite pretend games is what we call PARTY PLANNER. She loves to plan parties and guess who gets to be her assistant party planner? Before I learned improv, if she would say, “Let’s make a giant cake out of Play-Doh,” I would probably say, “No, that’s too messy.” I never fully appreciated how saying something like that could dampen her enthusiasm. But now I think “Yes And,” so I’m more likely to say, “Great! And after the party we’ll figure out what to do with the leftover cake.” I simply let her follow her train of thought, which is often more interesting and fun than my more linear adult thinking. As long as her idea doesn’t endanger ourselves or the house (which some of her ideas most certainly would do), I’m willing to try just about anything.

Whenever I’m looking for ideas for new games to play with her, I turn to the bible of improv, Viola Spolin’s  book “Improvisation for the Theatre.” Spolin wrote the book to bring together over 200 games she developed while working with children in the theatre, as a way to free them from the mechanical, stilted stage behavior that amateurs often exhibit. The book describes the purpose of each game, how to play it, and how to observe how well the game is working. Some of my favorite games in the book are GIBBERISH, PLAY BALL, WHEN I GO TO CALIFORNIA, and (for you fans of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?) BOX FULL OF HATS.

In retrospect, it seems so obvious. When I think back to when she was only a few months old, I’d smile at her and she’d smile back. I’d clap my hands and she’d try to clap hers. Imitation, a key part of a child’s development, is the basic idea behind MIRROR. And play is pivotal to how she grows, both cognitively and emotionally. To her, life is one big game and she’s constantly creating new and original rules for playing it. Improv is now an important part of her play. Porterfield says that the games are a really a state of mind, a way to be with and relate to her in a natural, free, and fun way. Understanding the ideas behind improv and the games has given me new insight into what works with her and why.

Improv has also taught me a lot about creativity, communication, and teamwork. I’ve enjoyed doing improv on stage with my fellow Second City Training Center graduates at places like the Comedy Cellar in New York City. But even that thrill can’t compare to the pleasure I get when a smiling and excited daughter who runs up to me and says, “Hey, Dad. Wanna do MIRROR?”