Every year, school systems adopt new educational interventions and initiatives. This can be overwhelming to educators, as it puts a strain on time, resources and emotions. A no- cost, high impact intervention that is easy to integrate into classroom practice and curriculum is improv.
Yes, improv, the comedic art form made of short games where player create a scene, story or situation spontaneously. This is an amazing and transformative educational tool.
If you want to create a trauma responsive classroom, help all your student break through their resistance to writing, create an inclusive classroom community based on trust, respect and that embraces diversity, apply improv. What’s amazing is that improv offers those benefits and more, simultaneously and by playing even the most basic improv games.
What Is Improv?
Before we get into our list of 23 reasons, let me define improv. The kind of activities I’m talking about here are called “short-form comedic improv.” They only require a small space and a couple of minutes; can be integrated with curricular content so there is no time off task; and engage the entire class simultaneously.
Although recognized for their ability to create comedic ideas or situations, improv is not about being funny and it is important to note that the laughter produced is shared and joyful and never at the expense of others.
Improv produces educational benefits because of improv’s specific rules and structures. These short (1-3 minute) games are similar to improvisational theater games and role-playing activities, but they differ in that they explicitly framed by the rule of “Yes, and.”
How Does Improv Work?
When people enjoy a improv as a comedic art, they are focusing on the spontaneity of the performance. Although spontaneous, improv games, are more structured than you realize.
It is the structure provided by the rule of “Yes, and….” and other structures that creates the spontaneity which sometimes results in comedic moments. The “Yes, and…” rule requires that each player unconditionally and without judgement accept the offer given by all other players and add to it. The act of “Yes, and- ing” is not teaching people to agree with everything in real life but is instead an exercise in listening completely to each other and then explore others’ offers and its possibilities.
Benefits of Improv for Schools and Teachers
In the following list, I’ve grouped the 23 benefits of improv into three broad categories: benefits for schools and teachers, benefits for the learner, and emotional intelligence benefits.
When people think about improvisation (improv, for short), they generally think about the benefits for the individual—benefits like improved self-confidence, creativity, and collaborative skills. And certainly, those benefits are real (see the next two sections).
But people often fail to think about the broader benefits that the regular use of improv can have for the classrooms in which it’s used and for the entire school. So, let’s start with the big picture.
Here are eight ways that the regular use of improv can benefit schools, classrooms, and teachers. Improv…
1. Supports the Democratic Values of the Education System
Schools are society’s number one enculturation tool. As such, schools across the country seek to create cultures that honor democratic values. What teaching approach could be more democratic than one (like improv) that engages all students simultaneously and honors each individual’s contribution? Imagine the impact school-wide if every teacher in the school used improv regularly in their classrooms!
2. Acknowledges and Supports Diversity
In a society as diverse as ours, it’s especially important that teachers use teaching approaches that honor and promote student diversity—and improv does just that. The structure built into all improv games allows students to lend their own unique ideas and perspectives to shape the performance. Learning to open up and give of one’s self while simultaneously learning to accept the ideas of others who differ from us develops the kind of open-minded mindset that teachers seek to develop in their students.
3. Builds Classroom Community
Educators have been talking about the importance of building classroom communities for a long time. We know that, if you get the community right from the beginning of the school year, everything else (both academic and non-academic) goes much more smoothly. One teaching approach that goes hand-in-hand with building strong classroom communities is collaborative learning. Educators understand that collaboration helps students learn how to work together for the good of the group. Improv does not only offer practice collaborating but develops the skills necessary for student to engage in successful collaboration.
Unlike cooperative learning, where students can sometimes hide behind the efforts of others, in collaborative improv they co-create as equals. They learn they are responsible and accountable to each other at all times. Students learn how to take turns stepping up to speak (taking the attention) and stepping back (giving the attention) to let others have their say. Communication, attunement, empathy, trust, respect and more are all practiced. Improv rapidly transforms the classroom into a supportive community of learners.
4. Creates a Trauma Responsive Environment
Thanks to recent trauma informed trainings, teachers understand that behaviors detrimental to academic success may be manifestations of trauma. Unfortunately, knowledge alone does not equip teachers with classroom practices to create an environment helpful to students suffering from trauma. Improv, with its ability to create a sense of safety and belonging, develop mindfulness and co-regulation, develop empathy and resilience, decrease anxiety and depression and more, creates a trauma responsive environment. It helps students get into a better mental state in which to learn. As teachers, we seldom know which students are suffering from past or ongoing trauma. We don’t know what kind of trauma or how it is affecting them. The practice of improv creates an trauma responsive environment for all students.
5. Increases Intrinsic Motivation
Educators often bemoan the lack of intrinsic motivation in their students, complaining that students have to be forced, threatened, or bribed to engage and learn. Not so. Today’s students are just as likely to fully engage with their learning as students from the past. The keys to such engagement are relevant curriculum and engaging instructional approaches.
Improv offers an instructional approach that builds intrinsic motivation—as long as the curricular content being processed during the particular improv game is relevant. Using William Glasser’s (1988) framework from his book, Choice Theory in the Classroom, as a lens, improv provides for all five of the key motivating factors all humans share: (1) improv satisfies students’ survival needs by structuring the activities in such a way that threat is reduced and trust in others and confidence in one’s self is increased; (2) it satisfies students’ needs for autonomy by allowing for self-expression, choice, and creativity; (3) it satisfies their needs for belonging by providing opportunities to collaborate with others, which, over time, builds community; (4) it satisfies their needs for power/competence because of it simple guiding frameworks within each game and because students draw upon their own experience and knowledge; and (5) while not every improv experience may feel enjoyable, the supportive playfulness and laughter, satisfies students’ needs for fun. Thus improv, if used regularly, can be a powerful tool for building intrinsic motivation in all of the school’s students.
6. Supports Discovery Learning
Most classrooms, most of the time, could be described as “top down.” The teacher makes the majority of the decisions—what to study, how long to spend on it, how the material is presented, how learning is to be assessed, etc. And much of that is as it should be. But this fact only makes the rare opportunities for students to learn inductively and discover meaning that much more important. And improv provides just that. While the general parameters and content of an improv game may be set beforehand, there’s no telling what students will discover about the content and themselves as they play the game. When students regularly get to be in charge of the direction of their learning (even if it is just for a couple of minutes at a time), their attitudes toward learning are often more positive.
7. Is Easily Integrated into the Curriculum
As I already noted, improv games are short (:30-3 minutes each), they require only a small space, and they engage the entire class simultaneously. Sure, it takes a little longer to introduce a new game to a class the first time, but you only have to do that once with each game structure. After that, you can just announce, “We’re going to be playing ‘Yes, And—Shared Memory’” (or whatever the game is you’ll be playing) and the students know the structure. Today, when many of the suggested activities in the curriculum require long stretches of time or the use of some technology that has to be booted up before one can use it, activities that teachers can implement in am instant are appreciated.
8. Makes Teachers Better Listeners
Oftentimes, we teachers think we have all the answers. After all, we’re putting together the curriculum, the unit plans, and the lesson plans. We know what we want the students to learn and we know how we want to get them from point A (not knowing the material) to point B (knowing the material). The danger is that, when we figure all of this out in advance, we can fall into the trap of telling all the time, which can shut down our willingness to listen. Students have their own background knowledge, they have their own learning needs, and they have their own stories to share. Using improv regularly forces us to hear what our students create in the moment, and this can be a surprising experience. We can often learn more about our students in a two-minute improv game than we can in a whole unit of instruction delivered the traditional way.
9. Gives Teachers a New Vocabulary for Classroom Management
Traditional classroom management language tends to have a lot of “No’s” and “Don’ts” in it. Classrooms structured on “rules and consequences” (even when these are developed jointly between teacher and students) thus can sometimes come across as oppressive environments. Classrooms that use improv regularly, however, offer teachers another set of terms to address classroom behavior—a vocabulary that’s focused more on building the kinds of classroom communities we say we want.
Two side-coachings of improv are the skills of “giving attention” and “taking attention.” Student are empowered as they learn they have the power to give and take attention. This may seem obvious to the teacher, but often the class feels powerless as the teacher struggles and often fails to manage students who disrupt. Those who want to learn are often frustrated with what they perceive as the teacher’s lack of ability to control the class. With the practice of improv, students quickly realize the power they have. They are now empowered and see their role and responsibility in creating an enjoyable and effective learning environment.
Benefits of Improv for the Learner
Here’s a list of ways improv can help students learn more, improve academic skills, and become more confident as learners. Improv…
10. Fosters Creativity
Education says it values creativity, but does it? How open-ended are most assignments? In school, students spend a lot of time trying to find the right answer, self-correct, and edit their work, but how often do they get to truly use their creativity? The initial stage of any creative act requires one to generate ideas without judging. Only once a solid set of “raw material” has been generated in such a fashion can revising and editing work profitably. The “Yes, and” structure of all improv games gives students practice in idea generation without editing, which develops the proper mindset they will need to create in all areas of their lives.
11. Deepens Learning
The wide variety of improv games give teachers a great deal of flexibility for retrieving information and transferring this learning to new situations. For example, the whole category of expert games (such as Hot Seat, Flip and Flop, and Expert Interview) require one or more students to act as an expert while other players challenge them or bombard them with questions or opinions they must answer or respond. This makes for an engaging (and challenging) review of material.
12. Makes Learning Concrete
Another way improv can improve learning is by making abstract (and thus difficult to learn) ideas, concepts, or processes more concrete. Any process or sequence, or anything that has individual components can be made concrete and taught through games (such as Yes, and, Describe It Another Way, or some of the Story games.) Such games can also be used to assess whether students really understood the initial teaching or not.
13. Builds Writing Fluency
Many students struggle with writing. Improv can be a powerful tool for getting over an occasional writer’s block or a chronic reluctance to write. Teachers often do not know if a student’s reluctance is due to a literacy deficit or a social-emotional issue. Improv addresses both simultaneously. Students develop social-emotional skills that can impact writing. At the same time, a scaffolded use of the games helps students transition rapidly from collaborative speech to individual writing, an essential and often developmental progression (DeMichele, 2015). More information about this approach can be found in my book Improv ‘n Ink: Overcoming, “I Don’t Know What to Write!”
14. Allows Different Students to Shine
Some students will respond positively to improv games and surprise you with their quick wit and natural performance skills—and the students who do so are very often students who don’t shine at most other academic tasks. Teachers new to improv are always shocked by this phenomenon. The great thing about this is that these students who are finally given a way of interacting with school content that matches their personalities and learning styles often blossom right before your eyes, gaining confidence and feeling pride in themselves that they’ve never experienced before.
Emotional Intelligence Benefits of Improv
Teachers often choose to add improv games to their classroom repertoire because of one or more of the academic benefits listed in the previous section. But the benefits don’t end there. Improv also confers a whole host of social-emotional benefits on students, as well, and it could be argued that these benefits are even greater than the academic benefits.
Here are a few of the powerful emotional intelligence benefits you can expect. Improv…
15. Teaches Students to Collaborate
You can’t play an improv game by yourself. Every game structure requires input from each participant, and from the audience, as well. It’s truly a collaborative event where responsibility is shared, and everyone is accountable to each other. So much of education is done individually that students don’t get enough practice at learning how to work effectively with others. A good description of most improv games would be: “working together with others to produce a creative product or solution in a short period of time.” That would also be an accurate description of the work environment in most businesses today, which is why business leaders consistently name collaborative skills among the most prized attributes for new employees.
16. Helps Students to Learn Resilience
The development resiliency is so important to the success of our students not only in the classroom, but in life. Currently, our culture attempts to protect students from feeling the failure for fear their self-esteem may be irreparably damaged. How can they learn and practice reliance if they are never given the opportunity to fail? Improv is the answer for this. Because improv is intrinsically motivating, as described in benefit number 4, even when students “fail,” they jump right back up to participate again. They practice resilience.
Failure in improv may be when a student freezes or denies “Yes, and.” Because they still feel a sense of belonging, autonomy, security, competence, and fun, they don’t quit, but jump up to participate again. And what is really cool is they are not failing in secret. They are failing in front of their peers. They learn they can survive failure. They learn to be resilient.
17. Helps Students to Develop Mindfulness
Mindfulness is being adopted in classroom practices—and for good reason. Studies have shown that mindfulness practice (focusing on the present moment through some type of focusing mechanism, such as one’s breath, a sound, or an object such as a candle flame) develops the ability to tune out distractions and focus on the needs of the moment, which is a skill very useful in all areas of life.
Improv games support the development of mindfulness skills as they require players to stay in the moment, listen to the offer of the player preceding them, and say “Yes, and” to that offer in some way. The moment a player loses focus on the present moment and lets his mind wander, he loses the thread of the game and consequently receives immediate feedback as the energy or flow of the game stops. Every time a student plays an improv game, he develops the skills necessary to achieve focus in any area of his life.
18. Helps Students Become More Comfortable with Public Speaking
Everyone knows that public speaking is one of the biggest fears for many people. Getting up in front of a class of one’s peers can be scary indeed, especially for those students who are naturally shy, who feel like they don’t have great vocabularies, or who are second language learners. Improv provides a safe structure within which to build confidence in speaking before a group. Since no single student is ever “on stage” for very long in any improv game, they get practice in short doses and in an engaging, non-judgmental, and often fun environment.
19. Makes Students Better Listeners
As described in the section about mindfulness above, to perform well in an improv game, a player must stay in the moment, listen to the player who precedes them, and then say “Yes, and” to that offering. The listening skills developed by regularly playing improv games are highly valuable in life outside of school as well, as listening intently so that the person speaking feels truly heard is a powerful way to build positive relationships.
20. Builds Trust
Many students have trust issues. Home environments, abuse, bullying…the list of situations that could lead to a lack of trust is long. And it’s often hard for these students to open up and become a part of a classroom community because of these issues. The regular use of improv can help these students learn that not all people are out to hurt them. The unconditional acceptance created by the frame of “Yes, and…” nurtures a trust in one’s self, as well as a growing trust in others.
21. Builds Empathy
I’ve already talked about how improv improves listening skills. But it goes way beyond that. To truly listen to another player, you have to not only be tuned in to what he’s saying, but also be tuned in to his body language and emotions. This attunement is the first step toward developing empathy. Add to this the overarching rule of improv (“Yes, and”) where all players unconditionally accept what the previous player offers (again, verbally and emotionally), and you can see how regularly playing improv games can develop empathy. And in today’s often contentious environment (politically, socially, culturally, you name it), there’s probably no skill more needed than empathy.
22. Teaches Students Self-Regulation
Some students have trouble with impulse control. They think of something they want, and they immediately act on it—whether that action is to the detriment of others in the environment or not. Obviously, this often gets them in trouble.
Improv games provide a structure in which such students learn that, for the game to proceed successfully, they must inhibit their needs to be the center of attention or to say whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it. Regular practice listening and accepting the offers of others, relinquishing control so to add to those offers and appropriately giving attention until it’s their turn to contribute, can be helpful in building impulse control.
23. Helps Students with Oppositional Mindsets
Students who tend to be oppositional often receive more benefit from improv than anyone. This is because these students’ natural reaction to just about any situation is to disagree, argue, or rebel. The primary rule of “Yes, and,” on the other hand, requires that they agree with whatever the preceding player says and then add on to it. Learning to listen, accept and explore an idea is a fantastic practice for these students.
Why Wouldn’t You Use Improv?
There you have it. Twenty-three reasons why improv is a powerful tool for supporting the goals of schools and teachers, for developing academic skills, and for developing positive social-emotional habits.
So, the only question remaining is, “Why wouldn’t you use improv?” Improv provides so much value, is so easy to learn and use, and it’s flexible enough to be used from kindergarten to college, in any content area, that it doesn’t really make sense not to use it!
As a classroom teacher, I understand the concern of having the time to integrate yet another instructional approach. Improv, however, is so easy to integrate into daily classroom practice and the benefits to learning are immediate and sustainable.
I wrote the book One Rule Improv: The Fast, Easy, No Fear Approach to Teaching, Learning and Applying Improv (2019) and started my website with the express intention of making the teaching and regular use of improv as simple as possible. Improv is based on a very simple process and once this is understood and practiced all the benefits come quickly. You can do this!
Mary DeMichele is a coach, consultant, author and improviser with over 25 years of experience in educational, clinical and professional settings. She is the author of One Rule Improv: The Fast, Easy, No Fear Approach to Teaching, Learning and Applying Improv and Improv ’n Ink: Overcoming “I Don’t Know What to Write! Mary holds a Master’s degree from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. For more information visit OneRuleImprov.com.