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GAMECHANGERS: Using Improv Games For Therapeutic Goals Workshop Handout

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct." Carl Jung

Applied Improvisation games are a form of brain training and social-emotional skill development that are increasingly used in training, therapy and classrooms. "Improv enthusiasts rave about its educational value," writes Linda Flanagan in "How Improv Can Open Up The Mind In The Classroom and Beyond" on Mindshift. According to BostonImprov National Touring Company director Deanna Criess, who is quoted in the article, improvisation "not only hones 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. Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others."

Improv games are designed to promote enough psychological safety that participants may take emotional and creative risks with one another and examine concepts and ideas together. When everyone involved follows these principles, group members can enter into a combined "state of play" - a state of heightened cognitive openness and arousal, which is felt as an interest and willingness to experiment, try new things, explore ideas and take creative risks. In this state, trying out a new behavior that is unfamiliar is experienced as safe, even though possibly awkward and uncomfortable, and it becomes easier and more automatic with repetition. 

HISTORY OF IMPROVISATION AS A METHOD OF SKILL/SELF-DEVELOPMENT - The roots of games as a way to communicate ideas and teach skills is in the earliest days of social service.
"In 1939, an actress and educator named Viola Spolin became a drama supervisor for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Recreational Project in Chicago—an effort made possible by the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt's groundbreaking response to the Great Depression. Spolin worked primarily with children and recent immigrants to the United States, most of whom knew very limited English. Luckily, Spolin had learned to teach from Neva Boyd, who taught that simple play could ingrain children with lessons in language, cooperation, socialization, and other important skills. Since lectures and other traditional teaching methods were useless with people who couldn't understand her, Viola Spolin turned her acting lessons into games. According to her website, Spolin once recalled, "The games emerged out of necessity...When I had a problem I made up a game. Then another problem came up, I just made up a new game." From these groups emerged the first improvisational theater performances, replete with scenes based on audience suggestions." "Improv Theater Was Invented To Help Immigrants Assimilate"

Radical acceptance and relentless positivity drive the improvised interaction.

Research published in Administrative Quarterly in 2002 shows that when group members experienced positive emotional contagion, there was improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance. Groups in which positive emotions and mood were spread displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict and reported feeling better about their performance on tasks than groups in which negative emotions were spread. And, groups in which people felt positive emotions actually made more fair and equitable decisions than groups which were impacted by negative emotional states."
"The use of games and play to achieve real-world goals should aim to empower human beings, helping them achieve their life goals more often and with less difficulty. Adding elements of fun and challenge to the execution of real life tasks does not mean that their seriousness will be diminished; it simply lends them a higher degree of enjoyability." "The Use Of Games and Play To Achieve Real-World Goals"

Use games in therapeutic situations or classes to:
Increase the sense of group connection and produce cohesion rapidly;
Provide structure that shows clear pathways for how to connect and interact with others;
Connect and communicate through a set of agreements and rules;
Produce tension with low stakes that generates creative choice;
Teach content through live exploration and interaction;

      Games provide 4 keys essential to human happiness:

Skills, tasks or "work" that can be learned and improved, which offer increasing levels of challenge and rewards for meeting those challenges;

The experience - or at least the hope - of being successful in large and small ways; at first the success is learning the skill, then applying it and taking it into more complex applications within the context of the game;

Social connections - games are structured, captivating ways to engage with others;

Meaning or purpose - the activity is linked to a collaborative spirit among people, or accomplishing a goal. In improvisation the higher meaning or purpose can be the well-being of one's partners who are equally at risk and vulnerable while improvising, making the success of the relationship the focus of our efforts. Or it can mean surrendering our own ideas about how an interaction or scene should be, or using improvisation to communicate and explore larger, important ideas.

Learn each participant's name;
Demonstrate that learning peoples' names can be made into a game;
Demonstrate how making something into a game can transform a group;

Group leader asks the name of the participant to his/her right, then says that person's name and add his/her own name, e.g. Participant is Jenny, Leader is Jude, so Jude says "Jenny, Jude." Participant to leader's left then says "Jenny, Jude" and adds his/her name. Each person must name every previous name, adding their own at the end. The last person has the hardest task - to remember everyone's name. 
After the circle is complete, the entire group says everyones' name in the sequence. Do it again, at a faster pace.

Debrief: What happened in the group when the list of names became longer? Did the group support and encourage the players who had to remember the longest list of names? 
If so, how was this expressed? How did this activity impact the atmosphere in the group?

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.

Demonstrate the fundamental principle of "yes" that drives improvisation;
Experience the dynamic interaction empowered by simple interactions with others;
Demonstrate the power of agreement;

Group members stand in a circle. Player #1 makes eye contact with another player, who responds by saying "yes," then moves to take that player's spot in the circle. The player who said "yes" must seek out eye contact with another player, wait for him/her to say "yes" then moves to take that person's spot in the circle. The movement can start slowly and then pick up momentum as a rhythm is established.

Debrief: This kind of dynamic interaction, with no content and a simple structure, is a mirror of the flow state between partners on a team, group members giving and receiving to one another, or the give and take between therapist and client. The exercise is a way to enter into a mindful state and focusing attention on the moment-to-moment activity happening in the moment.

  • Demonstrate radical acceptance
  • Experience radical acceptance
  • "Break set" mentally
  • Enter into the state of play in which many possibilities exist
Round 1: Participants stand in a circle. A category is suggested from the group. Player 1 has to name 3 things in this category, e.g. "fruit." After the first one the group yells "1!" very enthusiastically, after the 2nd one they yell "2!" and after the third "3!" Then big applause. A new category is chosen for the next player and the group does the same. A new category is named for each player. 
Round 2: A category is suggested by the group for the first player. Player 1 then "acts out" something within that category and the next player in the circle names it. Absolutely anything the person acting out does is great, and whatever label it is given is accepted. The group calls out "1, 2, 3!" as in the first round. The idea is to let go of old ideas about "getting it right" or worrying about content. Its about radical acceptance and unconditional support.
Round 3: A suggestion of "something that doesn't exist" from the group and the facilitator guides the group to make the category a little more complex, e.g. "movies starring Robert de Niro"  "books by Stephen King" or "talk shows." A player "acts out" a title and the next player makes up the thing that doesn't exist as if that's what is being acted out. After each one the group calls out "1, 2 3!" with great enthusiasm.

Debrief: Radical acceptance from a group combined with a creative challenge in which any response is correct is an entirely different way to interact with other people than what we usually encounter. Doing an activity like this is a way to examine what it feels like to connect with others in this way and what is it like to play with ideas and receive unconditional support. The emphasis on fun and positivity creates a new rule for engaging with others and reduces the tendency to overthink when doing creative activities.

SPOTLIGHT - Storytelling and Compliments Exercise

  • Learn more about each participant through a structured sharing exercise;
  • Discover the strengths each participant brings to the group and to his/her own life and struggles;
  • Identify the obstacles participants have overcome to realize their dreams and make them part of the group culture;
  • Deepen connections among group members;
  • Increase the opportunity for the reward chemistry of the brain to be stimulated through group interaction;

Part 1: Each participant is asked to share about a goal or dream they once held and somehow realized. Each story is shared in a 3-4 minute monologue, while sitting in the "spotlight", the rest of the group listening. The leader asks the participant to identify what strength or character trait he/she claims that is part of the reason for this success. 
Part 2: Group members compliment the person who shared, based on the content of the story and the participant's behavior and contributions to the group so far. 

Encourage a positive atmosphere among people in the group;
Focus thinking on ways to compliment and praise others;
Focus on the impact that compliments and praise of others has on the individual and the group dynamic;
Demonstrate how positive thoughts influence group collaboration;

The game is simply to go around the circle and single out each individual player one by one. A timer is set for 30 seconds and within that time the group is shout as many compliments as they can think of about that person. The idea is to get as many compliments into 30 seconds as possible. The compliments and praise can be anything from superficial to deeply sincere. 

RESEARCH: "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We've been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message 'praise to encourage improvement'. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation."  "Social Reward Enhance Offline Improvements In Motor Skill" PLOS One

"Praise taps into the same reinforcement system that enables cheese to help rats through a maze." Matt Lieberman, Phd, researcher, in Social:Why Our Brain Are Wired To Connect

                 TEDx talk: "The Social Brain And Its SuperPowers," Matt Lieberman, Phd


  • Explore the process of nonverbal "getting on the same page" with another person;
  • Experience the mental process involved with hearing and following cues that create mental associations;
  • Connect with partners through working together in a way that heightens awareness of the power of shared  experience;
Sitting or standing in pairs, players do a "free association" word game. Making eye contact, the players say "One, Two, Three" and on the fourth beat say a word that pops into their head. They continue to do this, saying "One, Two, Three" and then the word that pops out, until both players say the same word at the same time. 
Theme: Trees
Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player A: Birch    |      Player B: Christmas

Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player 1: Pine    Player 2: Birch

Players 1 and 2: One
Players 1 and 2: Two
Players 1 and 2: Three
Player 1: Evergreen    Player 2: Evergreen

Heighten attention on focused listening;
Practice the skill of yes...anding what partner offer in an interaction;
Practice "muscles" of collaboration;
Practice letting go of control or overthinking while engaged in a creative process

Two players stand or sit in the center. Each has a partner standing behind or to the side. The players to the side provide the actual lines in the scene. The players mime as if they are speaking the lines, and take on the emotions and ideas suggested by the lines. The idea is to yes...and one another.The players follow the story line offered by their partner, who is also building on the interaction and the physicalization and emotions expressed by their player. The interaction continues until there is some conclusion, a new agreement between the players, an organic ending of some kind.

The skills developed by dubbing can be translated into an exploration of a real-life scenario. The group can develop a situation between 2 characters or use one of their own. The side partners can feed ideas about what to communicate or think out loud about what is developing in the interaction. 

RESOURCES: Listen to Improv Nerd, a podcast by Chicago improviser and teacher Jimmy Carrane, for lots of great conversations about improv as an art form that leans into the ways that improvisation experiences and training strengthen skills associated with social-emotional development over the lifespan, self-awareness, communication and other interpersonal skills. 

Read: "Improv Is A Safe Space: Laughs Help Treat Mental Health Issues"

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages.

. G. 2002 “The ripple effect: emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 47, 644-675


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