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Using Creative Experiences To Develop Social-Emotional Skills

"Intelligence is a brain-body-environment structure and function system...learning and change are grounded in the experience of discovery.Madrazzo and Motz, 

"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,

Our interactions with other people are constantly creating and reinforcing neural
Workshop design and facilitation by
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
pathways and neural pathways are the "habits of mind" that we experience as thoughts, beliefs, identity and sense of self. During developmental years, having skills that promote relationships of reciprocity can form a foundation for shaping one's social/emotional life going forward, but research also shows that new experiences continue to shape and produce new neural networks in the adult brain. 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 write 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.”

How creative experiences and improvisation strengthen social-emotional skills
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.

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. “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." 

Name Game
Learn the names of group members and enhance the capacity to remember them;
Practice the basic rule of improvisation - the yes...and through simple repetition;
Provide a template for social-emotional engagement;
Develop a positive atmosphere of mutual acceptance in the group;

Each participant says his/her name with an adjective that starts with the first letter of the name and a movement, e.g. "Jacked-up Jude." "Phoenix-Rising Phoebe." Each player says their name with adjective and movement, then the group echoes it back. After each player in turn has done this, a quick repeat round is done to help remember the names, adjectives and movements. Then Player 1 will say his/her name/adjective/movement followed by the name/adjective/movement of another player, who repeats their own and passes the play along to another person in the group, e.g.
Steve:: "Strong Steve" Phoenix-Rising Phoebe:
Phoebe: "Phoenix-Rising Phoebe Marvelous Martha"
Martha: "Marvelous Martha Sweet Sue"

This continues and gradually picks up speed.

To conclude, the group says everyone's name in unison, going around the circle.
Call "freak out" and everyone runs around screaming and finds a new place in the circle.
The group then says everyone's name out loud together, going around the newly formed circle.

Pass The Movement/Sound
Practice receiving what others say and do without judgment- an improv rule
Experience simple give-and-take among group members
Lay the groundwork for unconditional support through active participation
Get out of the intellect and respond to others with physicality and positive energy;

The leader starts a simple movement and accompanying sound, and "passes" it to the player to the right. This person then "passes" the movement and accompanying sound the next person in the circle by repeating it as closely as possible. There will be variations in the way players repeat the movement and sound, so it will change as it goes around the circle. What is most important is for each player to receive it fully and pass it along with commitment Eye contact helps.
Then add the following variation:
Slo-Mo - the player passing the movement/sound can call "Slo-Mo" and pass it along in slow motion, which continues around the circle until someone calls "Regular Mo."
"Fast-Mo" is another option.
This is a warm-up to initiating in group interactions, shifting gears, simple experience of "yes...and" which is to accept what is offered and build on it in some small way.

Take the idea of initiating and "grabbing focus" into practice in the group;
Demonstrate the positivity toward one another that is essential to improvisation - and to social-emotional learning goals;
Play with the concept of radical positivity that drives improvisation and social-emotional learning;
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 stands 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 smiles broadly at that person. Then the group returns to looking ahead and breathing slowly. If two people say "beat" at the same time, the group waits to respond until 1 person goes. 

I AM A TREE - Story picture edition
Develop a story moment-to-moment;
Replace over-thinking and planning with moment-to-moment responsiveness;
Collaborate with others to create a story without planning or over-thinking;
Focus awareness on developing an idea or a story beat by beat;

Player A stands in the center of the circle and says "I am a tree." Next player adds something to the tree, e.g. "I am a bird in the tree," taking a pose that expresses this. Next player adds something to the scene, e.g. "I am a bird-watcher" striking a pose that suggests this. Next player adds something to expand the story, "I am the bird-watcher's binoculars," also striking a strong physical pose. The addition of new elements to the scene continues until the group feels the story is complete. The person who initiated the scene choose a player to remain, starting a new scene from the same pose they are holding, making that pose into something else entirely. Play continues from there, building stories beat by beat, players making strong poses that are then reframed into something new for each scene.

YOU ARE A ________
Explore seeing the same thing in many different ways;
Practice reframing and initiating based on another person offers;
Practice creative risk-taking;
Practice collaborative choice-making;

A player strikes a pose in the center of the circle. Another player jumps up and relates to the player in some way that defines the pose, e.g. the player stands with hands outstretched in front of him/her. Another player jumps up and says "Robot, get me a drink. The player posing responds as a robot, in a brief 1 or 2 line scene. The player returns to the pose. Another player jumps up and says "Mom, you're sleep-walking again!" and a brief response ensues. This continues for 4 or 5 more iterations of the same pose, then a new player with a new pose starts another round of play.

Practice making an emotional commitment and playing it out in an unscripted interaction;
Practice shifting gears and thinking on one's feet;
Practice the yes...and improv rule;
Explore how accepting and building on what others say and do requires some degree of creative thinking;
Experience having to change unexpectedly and try to keep the story going;

3 players are given a suggestion for a location and given 3 clear roles that can have a strong emotional tone, e.g. the location is Starbucks, the 3 roles are owner, janitor and customer. Each role should be related to the other 2 but clearly have a different emotion. A 4th player has a chime. The 3 players being to interact in a scene, playing their emotion and their role. The players are encouraged to "yes...and" what other players say and do, while still playing the emotion and role (this is a creative tension that is not easy to accomplish but the idea is to try, to experiment). At any time during the scene, the 4th player rings the chime, at which point each player rotates to another role, e.g. the Starbucks owner becomes the janitor, the janitor becomes the customer, the customer becomes the owner. Play continues from where the story left off. The last line spoken can be repeated, to enhance the flow. Different players will have different ways of expressing the characters, and players should build on what others contribute to the development of the character.

Collaborate with partners to create something new;
Use improv rules to collaborate and create;
Experience using physical poses to inform choices;
Practice physical poses that research shows communicate confidence;

The 6 poses commonly used by public speakers and that research shows demonstrate confidence to listeners are identified to the group: (images from "6 Ways To Look More Confident During A Presentation" in Harvard Busines Review
The Box

                                   (I misrepresented this one in the workshop.
                                    Sorry about that)

Six players stand in a line. Each is assigned one of these poses, which they will assume when speaking and allow the pose to inform the tone, style and content of what is said. The 6 players will create a fake TED talk, as if the group is one person, moving from one person to the next. Titles of these talks might be "Why Procrastination Is Good And How To Do It Well," or "Exercise Is The Worst Thing You Could Do To Your Body." The players take over for each other when a thought is completed. The idea is to make the content coherent and build on what others have said while using the pose as a source of inspiration. 

Variations: After 1 round in which each player contributes, have the players rotate right and assume a new pose for the next part of the talk.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, In a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Ed for social workers, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.


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