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Creative/Experiential Methods With Teens In Groups or School Settings: Workshop Handout

Workshop design and facilitation by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
Creative/experiential interventions are direct, immediately useful and highly effective methods of cultivating positive emotional states and social connections that translate into thinking and interpersonal skills. Social-Emotional Learning is increasingly recognized as boosting academic achievement as well as resilience to stress, psychological well-being and enhanced ability to make and form relationships, which has life-long impact on personal and professional life. This is uniquely beneficial during the adolescent years, when emotions are heightened and the pre-frontal cortex is still developing.
During the teen years, "there is a dramatic increase in connectivity among brain regions involved in judgment, getting along with others and long-range planning - abilities that profoundly influence the remainder of a person's life," writes Dr. Jay Giedd, in The Amazing Teen Brain. "And these developmental changes are occurring over a protracted number of years, as puberty is starting earlier and the attainment of adult roles, "often characterized by such events as getting married, having a child and owning a home - is occurring approximately five years later than in the 1978."

 Research published by the National Institutes of Health determine that a teen's prefrontal cortex - the reasoning part of the brain that can think long-term and make rational choices - is still under construction, while emotional responsiveness is greatly heightened. This is a bit like driving with urgency on a road at the same time it is being built, making every bump and hurdle upsetting in the extreme. "When teenagers perform certain tasks, their prefrontal cortex, which handles decision-making, is working much harder than the same region in adults facing the same circumstances," writes Scientific American writer Leslie Sabbagh in The Teen Brain, Hard At Work. "The teen brain also makes less use of other regions that could help out. Under challenging conditions, adolescents may assess and react less efficiently than adults." 
    A teen's first language is feelings - which can come in a flood-like sense of immediacy and intensity. Action methods like improvisation are also intense and immediate. "What Hope Looks Like: How Teens Benefit From Improvisation Training"

More from Scientific American MIND Special Edition Summer 2016

"MRI studies show that the teenage brain is not an old child brain or a half-baked adult brain; it is a unique entity characterized by changeability and an increase in networking about brain regions.

The limbic system, which drives emotions, intensifies at puberty, but the prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses, does not mature until the 20s. This mismatch makes teens prone to risk taking but also allows them to adapt readily to their environment.

Earlier onset of puberty in children worldwide is expanding the years during which the mismatch occurs.

Greater understanding of the teen brain should parents and society better distinguish typical behavior from mental illness while helping teens become the people they want to be." ****

  • The brain is "plastic" and continually changes it own wiring in response to experience and environment;
  • Emotion is integral to learning skills and content;
  • Practice and positive emotional connection produce neural pathways that integrate skills and information;
Our interactions with other people are constantly creating and reinforcing neural pathways. Through relationships we literally change one another’s brains. In the critical developmental years of adolescence, having skills that promote relationships of reciprocity can form a foundation for shaping one's social/emotional life going forward. In “Grand Challenge: Nature Versus Nurture: How Does the Interplay of Biology and Experience Shape Our Brains and Make Us Who We Are?” a panel of researchers at the Institute of Medicine (US) 2008 Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders. Washington (DC) Researcher Colin Blakemore, Ph.D stated that his and others' studies show that “neurons can change their connectivity. They can change the strength of their connections. They can change the morphology of their connections. They can do it not necessarily just in early stages of life, although that is especially exaggerated, but probably throughout life responding to new environments and experiences.”
"The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings. Emotion and thought are physically entangled— immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body, and the way we feel always influences our brain." James Zull, "The Art Of Changing The Brain" Educational Leadership, Sept. 2004.
Researchers Madrazzo and Motz authors of “Brain Research: Implications For Diverse Learners” published in Science Educator . write that "intelligence is a brain-body-environment structure and function system and that learning and change are grounded in the experience of discovery.

Why creative/experiential methods? 
Creative/experiential methods integrate the emotional, cognitive, social, and imaginative dimensions of experience and are the most direct approach to developing social-emotional skills. At the same time, they can be used to communicate about and explore data and content in ways that deepen learning. The games and exercises used in Applied Improvisation emphasize positive emotional connections among people in a group. The rules and structures are designed to promote a space of psychological safety and mutual support. Skills and information learned in a positive emotional atmosphere are more likely to be available when under stress in real-life situations.
“Experiences generate emotions, which bring relevancy and meaning to students, according to Eric Jensen of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. "Teaching tied to positive emotional experiences will lead students to generate new thought and motivation to learn. Although lecturing continues to be the most widely employed method in classrooms across the country, research on the way we learn indicates that lecturing is not always very effective." 

A Benefit-Cost analysis of Social-Emotional learning interventions found not just a positive return on investment, but a ration of 11 to 1. "This means that, on average, for every dollar invested equally across the six SEL interventions, there is a return of eleven dollars," write the study's authors, who conduct research at Columbia University's Center For Benefit-Cost Studies In Education

EXERCISE: Why Creative/Experiential Methods Are Effective For Learning and Change - adapted from

Discuss the principles upon which creative/experiential methods are grounded;
Engage the attention of group members to focus on a content-rich exercise;
Develop connections among the group members;
Put the principles of social-emotional learning into practice in real time;
Supplies: The following 14 statements about creative/experiential methods are printed out on 14 individual flash cards or papers. A printed version of all 14 statements in one hand-out.

PROCESS: Divide the group into subgroups of A and B. Each participant is given one principle to read and absorb. When the participants feel they have absorbed the information, they return the papers to the instructor and pair up. People in the A group find someone in the B group. Person A shares the principle he/she took in from the flash card, then Person B shares. When the instructor rings a chime (2 minutes approximately for this exercise) "A" people find another "B" person. This time each participant shares what their last partner shared, remembering it as best they can. This continues until all the principles have been shared (if the group is smaller than 14 there will only be as many rounds as there are participants). Have the group reconvene and give members the hand-out with the 14 principles. 

DEBRIEF: (some questions you might ask:)What was it like to try to remember what was just said? What was it like to move to different partners in this way? What do you notice about the group energy during and after this exercise? How might dealing with content in this way help participants retain it?

   Reasons To Use Creative/Experiential Methods For Skill Development
(adapted from Thiagi at

  1. An intelligent choice. Everyone has practical intelligence and analytical intelligence. People learn by using both types of intelligence. Traditional training approaches cater to analytical intelligence whereas learning through games and simulations cater to practical intelligence. Effective use of training games enables us to combine practical intelligence during play with the analytical intelligence after play, during the debriefing discussion.
  2. Different types of diversity. Participants in training groups are becoming much more diverse than ever before. Playing games is one approach that accommodates differences among participants, especially learning-style differences.
  3. Science recognizes the advantages of active learning. Cognitive scientists and learning theorists have persuaded the education and therapy worlds that passive approaches are not effective for skill development. Current research suggests that anything can be—and should be—taught through active learning approaches.
  4. Games and creative experiences exploit the power of peer teaching. A proven strategy for effective learning is to encourage participants to learn from one another. Many training games require cooperative learning among team members and competitive display of skills between teams. Within the structure of a training game, when an advanced participant teaches a beginner, both of them gain in their mastery of new skills and knowledge.
  5. Games and exercises can be designed to deal with diverse issues. Many games provide effective templates for training activities. We can keep the game structure intact and update the content or focus.
  6. Games are simulations that provide performance-based training. Participation in a game requires decision-making and some form of action on the part of the players. All of these factors emphasize active performance of skills, which translate into real-life decision-making and self-expression.
  7. Creative/experiential games and exercises are forms of radical engagement. The defenses and roles we tend to automatically slip into as a way of managing social situations can become blocks to the kind of growth that requires greater honesty and freedom. Creative strategies engage the tensions of uncertainty and use them to experiment with new thinking and behavior. Instead of just talking to each other in an informal fashion, we can use training activities to provide useful structure and increase the effectiveness of interaction.
  8. Experiential work provides a structure for safe social interaction. Knowing the rules of a game or the structure of an exercise reduces the need for self-protection which frees up energy that is then available for connecting with others and new learning.
  9. 9.    9.  Creative/experiential methods involve teamwork and collaboration. The skills for working together are built by playing together. Relationship skills develop through active engagement with others. Self-awareness grows through debriefing and discussion of what happens in the experiential process.
  10. 1 10. Games and creative experiences provide appropriate practice and feedback. The best way to acquire fluent mastery of most skills is to repeatedly practice appropriate behaviors and to receive immediate feedback. Many games transform drill practice activities into highly motivating contests that provide targeted practice and score points that are directly associated with increased competencies.
  11. Games and creative experiences match the immediacy of 21st century life. Teens today are growing in a time of hyper-speed change. They have been brought up playing video games and other types of activities. They have low tolerance for the slow-paced and passive learning approaches. Let's meet their learning-style preferences by using training games whenever possible.
  12.  Social-emotional skills are learned through direct interaction with other people. We are constantly creating and reinforcing neural pathways. Through relationships we literally change one another’s brains. In the critical developmental years of adolescence, having skills that promote relationships of reciprocity can form a foundation for shaping one's social/emotional life going forward.
  13. Social-emotional events that are linked to new information have a direct impact on our ability to receive, store and use it. Event memories are tied to specific emotionally or physically charged events (strong sensory input) because of the emotional intensity of the events to which they are linked. A dramatic event powers its way through the neural pathways of the limbic (emotional) brain and information gets pulled along with it.
  14. Information and skills learned in a positive emotional atmosphere are more available to be deployed when under stress in real life situations. Emotions are a signaling system that is always responding to the social world and to internal cues. Experiences that emphasize connection, humor, and good will reduce defenses and embed new learning that becomes associated with the hopefulness that can be generated by supportive groups and successful collaborations.

  • Warm-Up - Sensory - Limbic/Emotional - Cognitive
  • Skill Development
  • Action - Putting the skill into a scenario
  • Debrief/Sharing
  • Heighten awareness of one's physical/sensory experience;
  • Heighten awareness of internal shifts in thinking and feeling that occur when physical posture changes;
  • Heighten awareness of internal "monologues" that rise up;
  • Identify what happens internally when a physical/emotional experience is identified and put into words;
Participants stand and find a spot in the room where they have limited or no vision of one another, where they can focus on their own internal experience. They should find a spot where their backs are to one another, as close to being alone in the room as possible. Identify their partner as the person to their right.

On a count of 3 -2- 1 strike a pose and hold it. Notice: "what do you see, what do you notice, what do you hear, what do you feel?" Give a name to this pose.
On count of 3 change the pose to something else. Notice "what do you see, what do you notice, what do you hear, what do you feel?" Give a name to this pose.
On count of 3 change to a Superman pose.
On count of 3 change to a pose that expresses a heightened positive emotion.
On count of 3 turn to your partner. “Offer” that positive emotion to your partner – notice how this feels, how are you connected to your partner, what are you aware of,
On count of 3 turn to the center of the circle and "offer" this emotion to the entire group.
Toss” an encouraging word to someone in the group, e.g. "hope" "support" "strength." First be sure to make eye contact so the person knows they are about to receive something, then toss the word. The receiver “catches” the word by repeating it in the same way that it was sent, then “tosses” another encouraging word to someone else. After the group has done a round of this, anyone can call “slo-mo” before tossing a word and that means slow down the action and sound in an exaggerated way. To end “slow-mo” say “regular mo.” Plan continues, then add "fast mo" as another option. All words should be positive, encouraging and related to emotion. 
DEBRIEF: What internal monologues came up when striking poses? What self-protective defenses are linked to these monologues - usually "I'm not doing this right" or "I look stupid" or "I picked the wrong pose" or other self-critical voices? The function of these self-protective monologues is to help us get things right and feel safe. The function of a warm-up activity is to generate a social-emotional atmosphere in which we can learn different pathways to feeling getting things "right" and feeling safe. To "get it right" in an improv/experiential situation means: support the other people in the space;                       show willingness to go beyond our comfort zone; take creative risks. There is always some degree of discomfort when new neural pathways are forming, which is why habits are hard to break. The combination of novelty, social connection and positive reinforcement for trying things out produces learning on all levels.

Experiment with stepping into a role;
Support fellow players by taking a creative risk;
Draw out fellow group members through a creative interaction;
PROCESS: Participants name their favorite talk show hosts. Each player chooses the talk show host they would like to interview them, and another group member steps up to take the role. The interviewer does their best to "play" the talk show host, and interviews their partner about their work life: best and worst aspects of their job, advice to others, etc. 

POSITION SWAP YES...AND EXERCISE (Ideal for dialogues between 2 people with very different points of view or working with a teen or other client who has a strong idea in conflict with the information or insight we wish to communicate
Practice receiving what others say without judgment;
Practice interpersonal skills of acceptance and communication over some kind of barrier;
Practice stating a conflicting point of view from a relaxed and open emotional state;
Experience another person's worldview and make a genuine attempt to understand it;
Experience a way of having impact that absorbs another person's truth without attacking it;
PROCESS: Partners begin with each person having a very clear position or want. They have to be very different or opposite and transition so that at the end they have adoped each others' perspective.
Partner 1: Eating vegan is important because its good for the planet.
Partner 2: Eating meat is important because protein is the building block.

Partner 1: Yes, protein is the building block of life, and there are many ways to get protein that don't involve meat.
Partner 2: Yes, there are many ways to get protein that don't involve meat, and most of them taste terrible.
Partner 1: Yes, most of the alternative protein sources taste terrible and some of them can be made to be delicious.
Partner 2: Yes, some of them can be made to be delicious and meat-eaters will reject them anyway.
Partner 1: Yes, meat-eaters will reject them anyway, and run the risk of terrible health problems.

One sentence at a time the partners dialogue in this way until each is able to restate their partner's point of view and understands it. 

Assign 3 players to be some kind of team, e.g. 3 angels deciding the fate of a soul. Each team member decides what philosophy or approach they have in this scene, in relationship to the others. The idea is to create a diverse group with 3 different perspectives/strengths or interests. A 4th player presents his/her "case" to the team who decides his/her fate. Encourage the "interviewee" to be extremely positive about him/herself and his/her accomplishments. Make "much" of goals met, strengths developed and obstacles overcome. The "angels" should "yes...and" what the interviewee says in order to keep the flow of understanding going on both sides. The "angels" endeavor to embrace the point of the view of the interviewee, who in tries to understand the point of view of the "angels." This scene is analagous to any situation in which we are being judged - job interview, college admission board, or social group. It is just as important to be able to assess the interests and perspectives of the people interviewing/evaluating us as it is to be understood by them.

Reflect on the dynamic among the group members - how did the interactive experiences impact the way the group relates to one another? 
How did the interpersonal dimension impact the content delivery?
What will you take with you into your workplace?

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant, writer/performer and creative arts psychotherapist. She is President of Lifestage, Inc and host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling show, which features true stories - with a twist - told live, without notes and a game that involves the entire audience. 


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