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Improv For Kids Teaches Life Skills through Play

As published in Parent News, April 2012

By Gina Trimarco Cligrow

We hear it all the time … “they’ve cut drama and arts classes at my child’s school.” It’s a sad, but true reality. Another reality is the fact that a theatrical curriculum fosters the skill and creativity of self-expression through a visual, auditory and kinesthetic experience. Eric Jensen in Arts with the Brain in Mind states that, “brain research has increasingly shown that the bodily-kinesthetic arts contribute to the development and enhancement of critical neurobiological systems including cognition, emotions, immune, circulatory, and perceptual motor. Kinesthetic arts deserve a strong, daily place in the curriculum of every K-12 student.” So, while it’s important to learn multiplication tables and the history of the Civil War, it is equally critical to learn self-expression and communication skills to become successful and productive adults. Chances are that children will have a better opportunity to learn how to communicate in an improv class rather than in Algebra or History. Taking an improv class provides a variety of benefits for kids, aside from feeding their inner performers. Carolina Improv Company offers a two-week improv summer camp to give kids the opportunity to learn while playing.

First, let’s talk about improv in general. Most people think of comedy, especially Whose Line Is It Anyway? or Saturday Night Live when they hear the word “improv,” which would be correct. However, comedy is only one byproduct of improv. The art and science (yes, science) of improv can be applied to so much more, especially general life skills. The reality is that everyone, especially children, improvises every day. Webster.com defines “improvise” as: “to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously; to make, invent, or arrange offhand; to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.”

Learning improv helps to “re-train” the brain to actively listen, communicate verbally and non-verbally, be open to ideas, respond quickly in the moment, use imagination, collaborate, effectively use emotions, be more engaging, be flexible to change and be more hyperaware of what’s going on around us. All of these skills are necessary for effective interpersonal communication skills.
In the comedy world, improvisers are trained with skills to spontaneously create a script based on audience suggestions. They rely on fellow improvisers to collaborate ideas together, while making each other look good, for the purpose of pleasing the audience with the bonus of relishing in their abilities to deliver a memorable experience. And while they (and all of us) are born with these skills we tend to lose them because we don’t practice them the way we did as children. If you observe children you will notice that they are the best improvisers with the best imaginations. They have an easier time letting go of inhibitions. They don’t censor themselves. They don’t worry about being judged for their off-the-wall ideas or imaginary friends. They truly have fun in the moment. However, all of this needs to be continuously supported and fostered in children.

At Carolina Improv Company the most obvious outcome we observe in our kids classes is the overnight improvement in confidence amongst all of the kids. One mother even said that her daughter gained confidence to try out for cheerleading just because of improv. Why, you wonder? Here are some reasons:

A “Safe” Space: We create a learning space that is free of judgment in which all students are supported, respected and encouraged by the whole group. In improv there are no wrong choices, only stronger or more effective ones. As a result of this, their confidence levels increase as does their abilities to solve problems and act on decisions. And, they quickly learn that they are all in it together in class. Because they are part of group exercises, the spotlight is not on one particular child. The easiest way to succeed is through supporting and applauding each other in being uncomfortable with taking risks and possibly failing. And failure is okay. We learn through failure. How we handle failure is the bigger learning lesson. Once a child feels safe, he or she is more willing to participate and engage with the other students. This platform also supports an anti-bullying culture.

A Sensory Experience: Improv provides a multi-sensory experience. Students learn from the visual stimulation of observing how other students interpret and express emotions in specific improv exercises. Auditory learning also takes place through listening to the varying intonations inflections and emotions in other students’ voices during exercises. They also learn kinesthetically through physical movement in class. One of the key learning strategies in improv is “learning by doing”, meaning, “Don’t talk about building a bridge. Build the bridge.” Pantomime also provides kinesthetic learning opportunities, especially for children with motor skill difficulty. Through pantomime exercises they can learn how to tell a “story” without speaking and this is especially beneficial for kids who are self-conscious about speaking or who lack confidence in their verbal skills.

Spontaneity and Problem Solving: Guiding students through improv exercises allows them to think “outside of the box” by allowing them to use their imaginations to create whatever they want, knowing there is no judgment in their creations. When given the space to explore and heighten they will naturally feel free to solve problems in unconventional ways through trial by error. Again, there’s no wrong way in improv and there are always multiple ways to doing things.

If you’re looking for an opportunity for your child (or even yourself) to improve his or her confidence, be less timid, improve communication skills, be supportive of others, think quickly and adapt to his or her environment (or situations), an improv class may be the answer you’ve been looking for. The ability to think in the moment through improv is a “real life” skill that is valuable for every child. Oh, and, one more thing, they’ll have fun since improv offers an “anything goes” playtime experience. They’ll just happen to learn a few things while playing! We won’t tell them that they’re learning things, if you won’t.

1 Response
  1. You did a great job of explaining how improv helps kids act in the moment and use their imagination. My son has expressed interest in acting after participating in his school’s play. If I enroll him in some improv theater classes, he can learn how to use his imagination in his acting.