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Social-Emotional Learning Through Applied Improvisation - workshop handout

How improvisation strengthens social-emotional skills
The games and exercises used in Applied Improvisation emphasize positive emotional
Workshop design and facilitation by
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
connections among people in a group and provide guided structures that strengthen specific communication and interpersonal skills. Like psychodrama, such creative/experiential methods integrate the emotional, cognitive, social, and imaginative dimensions of experience and are the most direct approach to developing social-emotional competencies. At the same time, they can be used to communicate about and explore data and content in ways that deepen learning. 

The rules and structures of improv games are designed to promote a space of mutual support within which a degree of creative risk can be taken. They are deceptively sophisticated in terms of their power to shift participants out of self-protective mode into a creative mindset. Skills and information learned in this kind of positive emotional atmosphere are more likely to be available when under stress in real-life situations. Learning to manage emotions that emerge during the controlled sense of crisis that occurs when playing a game with others in a safe space is an ideal method for training ourselves to manage situations of intensity and uncertainty without being derailed by the stress response.
   Social-emotional learning 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." 

Learning to manage emotions that emerge during the controlled sense of crisis that occurs when playing a game with others in a safe space is an ideal method for training ourselves to manage real-life situations of intensity and uncertainty without being derailed by the stress response. This is because social-emotional events have a direct impact on our ability to receive, store and use new information "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," explains neurologist Judy Willis in Research-Based Strategies To Ignite Student Learning. "Because the 'dramatic event' powers its way through the neural pathways of the emotionally preactivated limbic system into memory storage, the associated hitch-hiking academic information gets pulled along with it. Recollection of the academic material occurs when the emotionally significant event comes to mind, unconsciously or consciously. To remember the lesson, students can cue up the dramatic event to which it is linked." 
Matthew Lieberman, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA whose book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, argues that our need to reach out to and connect with others is a primary driver behind our behavior. Empathy, intuition, and other emotionally-driven social cues are integral to to learning and success, according to his findings. 


Practice listening and responding without overthinking
Focus on creating and maintaining a rhythm with the group rather than saying something clever or "right"

Shift gears from editing and self-censoring to playing
Share stories about one's own experiences
Practice giving and taking focus

The group stands in a circle. A player "tosses" a word to the player on his/her right. The recipient must "catch" the word by repeating it - (doing the movement of catching is recommended to keep the body engaged) - then saying the first word that comes to mind. That player then "tosses" to the player on his/her right, going around the circle until it returns to the leader or first player. 

Round 2: A player "tosses" to any player by making eye contact with them first and the recipient "catches" in the same way, saying any word that comes to mind. Then that player tosses a new word to another player, first making eye contact so the person is ready. In the first round, the objective is to say the first word that comes to mind and not be at all concerned about the content. The objective is more about establishing a rhythm that is felt than anything the rational mind will view as making "sense." Words associate in our brains in all sorts of ways and we want to allow a free expression of words that does not allow us to go into judging mode. If we allow ourselves to express the word that pops in and then just move on to the next play in the game, we can shift out of self-protective mode ("did I say the right thing? Is this ok? I hope people like what I said") to creative mode (I'm discovering something with my partners, I'm in a rhythm with them and something new is going to happen). 

Round 3: This time a player tosses a word, and receivers can say the first thing that comes to mind, and if the word inspires a memory or a story the receiver can share that after saying the word. Encourage players to allow an idea or memory of an experience inspired by the word to share it.

To practice sharing focus with others;
To practice taking focus in a group;
To experience the unfolding of a story withing having control of where it will go;
To practice following a creative impulse and trust that the group will support it if everyone has agreed to the experience;

Social-Emotional skills: 
Creative communication;
Focused listening that strengthens interpersonal connections;
Self-awareness that develops through discussion of one's internal mental and emotional process during the exercise;
Develop tolerance for uncertainty and the dynamic unfolding of an interaction;

One player begins telling a story, either as a character or simply by starting with "Once upon a time." At any time, another player may tag out the speaker and continue exactly where the story left off. 

Creative Introductions
Develop interpersonal connections between people in the group;
Practice active listening;
Practice sharing about self to increase safety in the group;
Generate spontaneity in the group;

Group members sit in pairs, facing each other. Each dyad decides who will be Person A and who will be Person B. Person A will talk for 1 minute without stopping about a topic assigned by the group leader while Person B listens without interrupting. As soon as the topic is given the exercise begins. Suggested topics are neutral, e.g.: breakfast, fruit, autumn, water, blue, stars, etc. Person A should share whatever comes to mind from their own experience on the topic. After time is called, Person B then shares with the larger group what he/she heard Person A say, in the style assigned by the leader. The style is assigned immediately before the group member is about to speak so there is minimal time to think too much. Styles include: 
Real Housewives
Sports announcer
Very proud 
Very impressed
This is something we really shouldn't be talking about
Breaking News!
Town Gossip
Old style preacher
Narrating a documentary

Players then regroup into new dyads. Everyone who was Person B in the first round are now Person A. A new topic is given, something a bit more personal, e.g. "Talk about your favorite fictional hero and why" "Talk about your favorite real-life hero and why" "Talk about a strength you are glad you possess" "Talk about a goal you have achieved that once seemed impossible." Person A shares, Person B repeats in the style assigned by the leader.

This exercise is a practice in close listening and showing support for a partner, which are the foundation of improvisation and of healthy interactions with others. The second part of the exercise strengthens the "dramatic event" element of social-emotional experiences by adding a bit - but not too much - creative risk with a side of playfulness.

Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to belong in a social environment and know that you belong;
Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to feel lost and unsure in a social environment;
Observe how it feels in the body and emotions to adopt a curious mind set;
Observe what the social world feels like when leading with curiosity;
Experience the mind set of an improviser – curious, open, interested – that takes up and replaces the same psychological space as fear, anxiety and self-consciousness;

Walk about the space in different ways:
1) Silently choose someone to be a person to whom you are going to give a great deal of space. Walk about the room giving that person space and experience how you do that. 
1 2) You know what’s going on, you know how to deal with what is going on and you know that you know. FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.
23) You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know how anyone knows what is going on or what to do; FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.
34) You don’t know what’s going on and you know that you don’t know but you are insanely curious about and interested in this environment; FREEZE and observe what is going on with your body, your emotions, and your sense of the space/others.
4 5) Take up as much space as possible in the way you walk. See what that feels like to take up a great deal of space.
6 6) Take up as little space as possible. Be aware of what you do with your body, how you feel in relationship to the others in the group when you consciously try to take up very little space.
    Discuss what each of these walks felt like for group members. How did the different ways of walking impact emotions? How did they impact potential contact with others in the room? How might we apply those perceptions to clinical work - people have different need for space and may not be aware of what others need, or may be very attuned to what others express in terms of wanting space and allow themselves to be impacted. 
   Discuss self-observations with the group. What do group members have in common in terms of their internal experience? What is it like to shift into curiosity simply by choosing it? 

Research: Curiosity is defined as a positive emotional-motivational system associated with the recognition, pursuit, and self-regulation of novel and challenging opportunities. It "prompts proactive, intentional behaviors in response to stimuli and activity with the following properties: novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict.” Creativity and Exploration: Facilitating PositiveSubjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities Journal of Personality Assessment 2004

Read more about the connection between curiosity and social-emotional learning on

FIVE POSES  (usually done with 3 but because there are 5 concepts we are exploring in this exercise this time it is 5).
Get out of overthinking and jump into a physical experience that connects the players in a shared goal;
Experience the “high” of a “win” that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;

The 5 core competencies of social-emotional learning are identified and each assigned a strong physical pose:
Emotional Awareness
Emotional Self-Regulation
Social Awareness- interpersonal skills

In the style of "rock, paper, scissors" the leader of another group member counts out loud "1, 2, 3 pose!" and on "pose" each player assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each represented at the same moment. 

This game is a non-verbal way to connect players in a common goal. The "problem" is a simple one but there is really no strategy or cognitive process that will help realize the goal. It requires simply trying. The willingness to keep trying until the goal is achieved. And it taps into a different pathway of connection between people, an intuitive, unspoken connection that develops when we play together. This "sense" of being connected to others is cultivated by playing games and an almost magical awareness of what the group is moving toward is what makes improvisation possible. It is also the mental and social process that drives creative problem-solving.

THREE ICONS version of this exercise: The group identifies 3 iconic figures from a world familiar to everyone in the group, all of whom inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. 3 great thinkers: Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers; 3 iconic women: Michelle Obama, Madame Curie, Harriet Tubman;  A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each of these individuals. The group breaks into teams of 3 and plays as above.

Practice listening and responding to a partner in a scene;
Look at the same social dynamic through different emotional frames;
Provide a palette for the group to examine different social and emotional dynamics;

2 players step into a space to play a scene for the group. They are given a suggestion as to what they are doing, and this should be a very mundane, ordinary activity that people might do on any given day, e.g. cook dinner. go through the mail, decide what movie to see, make a list of things to do. The partners relate to one another while doing this activity but not talking about doing it. A relationship emerges through this process. After 2 minutes or so, the scene is called. This scene becomes the neutral palette upon which we paint different emotional tones. 
The same pair then play the scene with a specific, very heightened emotional tone, e.g. unbridled enthusiasm, extreme suspicion, extreme shyness, as if everything is a big surprise, or as a specific character type: as if it is their last night before battle, they are kids home alone for the first time, they are stockbrokers who just lost all their money, doctors who only relate in clinical terms.

The play and creative element of this exercise can be a way to isolate different emotions and look at them in a very entertaining way. Channeling different emotions or character types into the various situations created by the players promotes spontaneity and mental flexibility.

More Resources:

Comedic Improv Therapy For The Treatment Of Social Anxiety Disorder

Improv For Life by Patrick Graney

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Education 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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