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Applied Improvisation For Social-Emotional Learning Workshops Hand-out: Games, Exercises and Resources

This hand-out supports live in-person workshops at Lifestage, Inc in Smithtown, NY
 Lifestage, Inc, SW CPE is recognized by the New York State Education Department?s Board for Social Work as an approved provider of continuing education for licensed social workers #0270. Go to for a schedule of courses for social workers, counselors, psychotherapists and educators. 
Instructor: Jude Treder-Wolff LCSW, CGP, MT

Applied Improvisation borrows from the concepts and practices that make theater compelling and a force for good in the world: the telling of stories, sharing of human struggles, creative engagement and social-emotional connection. What produces good acting can be applied to self-development to advance our social and emotional intelligence. 

"A key to good improvising is to be emotionally connected. Improvisers have great freedom to explore limitless options. Yet they must work tgether to create scenes and songs, and to do so, they need to be on the same page with the other actors. For this, they must rely on their emotional intelligence." Paul Zuckerman and Linda Gelman,“You Can’t Think And Act” BackstageJune 3, 2010

Applied Improvisation is the experience of real-time social-emotional learning - which is defined by the Collaborative For Academic, Social and Emotional Learning as "the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." The games and exercises used in Applied Improvisation accomplish several objectives that research shows align with the development of social-emotional competencies.

As identified in "The Profile Of Emotional Competence (PEC): Development and Validation Of A Self-Reported Measure That Fits Dimensions Of Emotional Competence Theory," published in the journal PLoS One, the 5 core Emotional Competencies are:
 Identifying emotions - the ability to perceive an emotion when it appears and if possible name it;
Expressing emotions - the ability to express emotions in a socially accepted manner;
Understanding emotions - the ability to understand the causes and consequences of emotions, and to distinguish triggering factors from causes; 
Regulating emotions - the ability to regulate stress or emotions when they are not appropriate to the context) 
Using emotions - the ability to use emotions to improve reflection, decisions and actions;

 which translate into lower stress levels, enhanced subjective psychological and physical well-being, and stronger relationships. The skills developed through engagement in the games and exercise described below include: 
  • Recognizing how the stress response impacts thinking and physiology;
  • Learning how to focus attention in ways that help pilot through the stress response without being derailed by it;
  • Connecting to the emotional energy of a group;
  • Contributing to a positive emotional tone in a group;
  • Responding to the unpredictable with mental agility, adaptability and creativity;
  • Getting on the same page with others in a short amount of time;
  • Empathy and emotional awareness;
  • Recognizing and responding to social cues;
  • Collaboration with partners;
Principles of Improvisation that relate to Social-Emotional Learning
1) Picking up social cues and reading emotional tones;
2) Accept what is happening without judgment;
3) Shift the emotional direction through making offers;
4) Fail with humor;
5) See opportunities, not threats;

Clap- Point- Name 
This exercise demonstrates how quickly our brains develop patterns and how even minor changes in patterns can feel disruptive. This helps explain the power of habit and how playing games that purposely disrupt patterns increases mental agility and psychological adaptability. These are essential for doing improv but even more important to a successful life in which we will have to navigate change that we do not see coming.

Objectives: Practice focused listening;
                   Respond to the unexpected and unpredictable;
                   Co-create a pattern with others and then disrupt it.
First round: Group forms a circle. Facilitator claps for 1 beat, then points to a person in the circle, then on the 3rd beat says the person's name: Clap. Point. Name. That person then repeats this pattern with someone in the circle who continues the pattern.
Second round: Clap, point to a person in the circle and say someone else's name. The person named then claps, points to a person in the circle and says someone else's name. Third round: Clap, point to a person, name someone else. The person the right of the person named goes next.

Objectives: Focus on the group task and get out of one's head;
                   Practice sticking with a rhythm and thinking about something else at the 
                    same time;
                   Practice thinking on one's feet, adding to what has been offered;
                   Practice making mistakes without stopping the momentum;
Players stand in a circle, and set up a rhythmic slapping hands on thighs. The first player shouts a category, e.g, "Breakfast Cereal," and each player in turn will name an item in that category - Cheerios, Oatmeal, etc - sticking with the rhythm that has been established. When a player hesitates too long or cannot think of a word in that category the next player starts a new category. 
It is most important to keep the circle moving and not stall. While it is preferable to keep thinking in the category pattern, it is okay to shout out a "wrong" answer (ie, Bananas to the above category), and keep the rhythm going around the circle. Gradually pick up the tempo of the slapping which also picks up the tempo of the words being called out.
To experience uncertainty and unpredictable changes in the environment;
To attune to the unspoken group energy;
To focus on simple offers that draw the attention of the group;

Group sits silently in in a circle, focusing on breathing slowly and meditatively. At random moments someone says the word "beat" at which point everyone rapidly turns and looks at that person taking a beat. Then the group returns to looking ahead and breathing slowly.

  • To strengthen skills in observing and attending to others;
  • To strengthen the ability to make strong physical moves;
  •  To trust that things will happen when you're not pushing/driving;
  •  To experience nonverbal interaction which focuses attention on emotional rather than cognitive connection;
Everyone in a circle in a neutral position. Coach says "go." The players start mimicking each other, exaggerating slightly what they observe. If a player notices another twitches his fingers, then he starts twitching his fingers in a more pronounced fashion. Soon the players should form a big amorphous shifting blob. Noises count. Mistakes and accidents should be repeated also.
No one should deliberately push or lead the group -- you can just mirror what you see. Also, don't get hung up if you believe someone else is pushing or leading.

Accepting: Getting On The Same Page
  • Practice receiving offers without words;
  • Practice building on offers without words;
  • Attune the group to the energy and flow produced through offers given and received;
  • Develop an unspoken group "mind" which enhances attunement to social cues;
Get everyone in a big circle. One player starts by making a little gesture, perhaps with a little sound. His or her neighbor then tries and does exactly the same. And so on. Although we expect the gesture/sound not to change, it will.
Watch for movements that suddenly change left/right arm or leg. This is not really supposed to happen, but it will. Once happened, it should be accepted by the next player.
Also watch/listen for little moans or sighs that players might make before or after their turn - these should also be taken over by the next player.

YES Circle
Connect nonverbally to the group, which can translate into a sense of spontaneity and creative flow;
Practice giving and receiving requests that sustain energy in the group;

Stand in a circle. Leader makes eye contact with another player, who must say "yes" before the leader can move. Leader moves to take that player's spot in the circle while he/she makes eye contact with some other player who must say "yes" before he/she moves to that spot. The exercise is to achieve smooth movement from one spot to the next, receiving the request to give up one's spot and rapidly gaining permission from someone else to take their spot. After a flow is established, eliminate the word "yes" and replace that with eye contact and a nod. Then try to do it with just eye contact. It is a kind of meditation that generates a group mind from which much trust and positive energy can be generate.

The Dolphin Training Game: 
  • Attend to social cues;
  • Let go of preconceived ideas about what is or should be happening;
  • Collaborate with the group;
  • Focus on 2 co-occurring group events;
  • Trust a group process while making bold choices to see what works;
It’s just like the hot/cold game you used to play as a little kid, but without the cold and with the sound "ding" instead of hot. It’s the same concept as the one you use to train dolphins to jump through hoops and stuff. A player leaves the room. The group decides on a single simple task for them to do: Sit on the chair; put their hand on their head; hug the stuffed animal in the room; lift the chair off the ground; etc. Try and keep the tasks to single activities when starting out. The group also agrees on a topic of conversation that will be going on when the player returns, e.g. the group will talk about great restaurants on the east end of Long Island. 

The player returns to the room and the group conversation goes forward. When the player does any little thing that is close to the activity everyone in the audience says "ding". When he/she is physically close to where he/she should be to perform the activity, everyone says "ding ding" louder and with more intensity. The group has to focus on keeping the conversation going and at the same time help the player make his/her next move. When he/she performs the action, everyone goes "ding ding ding ding ding" and someone else gets to  

To explore an idea with no script;
To establish a point of view and build on it;
To experiment with different points of view about the same thing;

Two players sit in chairs side by side, as if sitting on a park bench. Player 1 begins to talk about a subject from a very definite point of view that they authentically believe, e.g. "I believe every child should learn a 2nd language" or "Climate change is the most important issue of our time." Player #2 engages in a conversation led by Player #1's passionate beliefs about the topic, either honestly disagreeing if that is the case, or supporting. The idea is to have an authentic conversation without getting heated, just a discussion. After 3-4 minutes, the conversation stops. Player #1 now talks a short walk from the bench, then returns and takes the exact opposite position with just as much passion, e.g. "I believe children should learn never learn a 2nd language" or "Climate change is the least important issue of our time." Player #2 now engages in that discussion as led by Player #1. 
Debrief: What was it like to express a point of view with passion and authenticity?
What was it like to take the exact opposite point of view?
What was it like for Player #2 to have to shift along with the changing perspectives of Player #1?
What was it like for the group to observe this process and what can be learned about social-emotional development?

Develop listening skills;
Develop skills in collaboration and making a partner look good;
Develop skills in creative thinking and taking cues from others;
Develop skills in picking up a social dynamic and making a game of it;

3 Players. Players 1 and 2 are given a movement to use to start a scene, e.g. arms outstretched in front. Using that movement the players are to quickly establish what they are doing, who they are to one another and what is happening in this moment. A chime is given to a random group member, and at any moment in the scene may ring the chime. When the chime rings, Player #3 must stand up and say "the moral of the story is....." and sum up the emotional, social, or psychological dynamic in the scene. 

Develop situational awareness and competence in picking up social cues;
Develop skills in collaboration and co-creation with a group;
Develop emotional awareness and capacity to express a range of emotions;

A Player leaves the room and is instructed to create some big news to share with the group upon returning. While the player is out of the room, the group decides what kind of group they are, e.g. a choir about to rehearse for a concert, a staff meeting of a large company, a medical team about to go into surgery, etc. The group improvises together briefly, establishing the group story, then the player who left the room returns. This returning player brings the full emotional power of whatever news he/she is bringing to the group, and the group must respond and integrate both the news and the emotion into their improvisation. The player who comes in with the news must work out a role within the group as he/she experiences it. 
Debrief questions:
What was most challenging about being the "outsider" coming into a group?
What was most challenging about integrating the news the group did not know would impact them when the story was created?
What social situations parallel this process from both the perspective of the outsider and the group members who have to integrate an emotional mood and unpredictable information?


Best-Kept Secret To Creating Social Change: Take An Improv Class by Mark Evan Jackson and Alex Gorosh. (You can hear Mark Evan Jackson improvise brilliantly and hilariously on some amazing podcasts, including Thrilling Adventure Hour
Spontaneanation, and as Charles Dickens on The Dead Authors Podcast.)
"hold the secret to the fastest, widest ranging, longest lasting, and certainly most fun path to positive, global social change: Everyone in the world should take an improv class. I have never been more serious about anything in my life. If more people improvised, there would be no war. what improv teaches you is that it is okay (in fact, awesome) to fail boldly—to make big, sweeping and courageous decisions on the fly. And that if you do fail (which you TOTALLY will, a lot) you can always just get up, dust yourself off, get another suggestion from the audience, and try again. You are no longer responsible for having the perfect answer right away, but instead are empowered to know that armed with nothing more than your fellow participants, energy in the direction of the common good, and an open heart, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. 
Improv removes the need to be right all the time. Improv frees one to say, “I don’t know.” And improv takes the focus off you as an individual, and places it on the group, and the common good. 
     Full disclosure: There is a down side. Improv will make you realize how awful we humans are to one another. It will point that out to you every time someone begins speaking while someone else is already speaking, and make vivid who in your life is or is not listening. You will see the fear-driven, selfish, self-aggrandizing motivations behind what everyone is saying and doing as they interrupt one another. Once you are exposed to improv, Thanksgiving dinner with your family will become more unbearable than it has ever been. READ MORE
How Improv Can Open Up The Mind To Learning In The Classroom and Beyond on MindShift
"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." READ MORE

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