Happy spring!  I’m excited to share one of my favorite silly games to play at home.  This classic theater game presents a concrete way to pivot from screens to play.  It is called, ‘What are You Doing?” and it is loads of fun.

Normally, this is a great group game, and you’ll see it played in a circle with our Child’s Play NY teachers in the video below.  However, the beauty of it, that I recently experienced, is that you can adapt it to play with much fewer people.  It is my new go-to for those between times when kids lunge for a screen but you’d rather set them up with an alternative.

I recently played it with my son and his friend on a play date after lunch.  We had been doing What Do You Like More? and One Word Story around the table. That was fun, but then the meal was done, kids were getting wiggly and there was a wind advisory so the playground was a non-starter. I went over on the rug with them and played “What Are You Doing?” to get the energy out and jump-start their own imaginations.   The best part was, I set it up, played a few rounds with them, and then walked away. Delightfully, they kept playing on their own until it morphed into some other game of their own invention (and I went back to my cathartic spring cleaning!).

How to Play “What Are You Doing?”

Check out our charismatic teachers playing “What Are You Doing?”

Play the Game With Just Two People

Normally, this is done in a circle with a class, but it can easily be tweaked to play with you and your kid.  If you get siblings or friends on a play date involved, all the better! Here’s a script of how you can play with just two people.  Let’s call them Abby and Ben.

Abby starts a physical activity, for example, ice-skating.

Ben: What are you doing?

Abby can now say anything, as long as it isn’t what she is physically doing (ie ice-skating)!

Abby: Dancing in a competition.

Ben now has to take Abby’s spot and starts dancing.

Abby:  What are you doing?

Ben: (while dancing, he responds) Eating a sandwich.

Abby starts eating a sandwich.

Ben: What are you doing?

Abby can respond with anything other than “eating a sandwich”.

Abby: Flying through the air using an umbrella.

Ben acts out flying through the air using an umbrella.

The playing continues on like this, either back-and-forth or taking turns, until everyone has gone a set amount of times.

Why “What Are You Doing” is not just a funny game

photo credit, Jody Christopherson

There are some legit brain-boosting benefits to this game!  Here are some of the Executive Function skills that kids are practicing through play.

  • Impulse Control
  • Self-Regulation
  • Mental Flexibility
  • Focus and Attention

When children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits. These skills are crucial for learning and development. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families.
– Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

Social-Emotional Benefits of “What Are You Doing?”

Additionally, there are majorly important social skills that kids are working on while they play.  For example:

  • Positive Risk-Taking
  • Active Listening
  • Developing Sense of Humor
  • Collaboration

What is Side-Coaching and How Can it Help?

Whether you are playing this as a funny game to relax with your kid, or using it as a group ice-breaker, there are ways that a little adult-prompting can enhance the playing.  This is called “side-coaching” – and can ultimately be really supportive and inspiring for kids to have even more fun with the game. Here are a few pointers to make the game it super active and bravery-boosting when you play! The mother of all theater games, Viola Spolin, has this to say about side-coaching.

Side Coaching is the calling out of just that work, that phrase, or that sentence that keeps the player on focus.  Side Coaching phrases arise spontaneously out of what is emerging in the playing area and are given at the time players are in movement.
-Viola Spolin, Theater Games for the Classroom


Create an Atmosphere

If you are playing with a group, have them add in the sound effects to create a more funny or dramatic atmosphere.  For example, if the sentence is, “I’m running away from wolves!” – you can say, “Howl, wolves!” and the others playing will break out into a yowl!

Make it High Stakes

Ask the question, “Why now?  Why is it important to do this now?”.  For example, if someone says, “I’m eating a BLT.”  and you ask them, “Why now?” – they will understand to add on a higher stakes scenario like, “and it is the first meal I’ve had in 3 days!”.  I love that question because it automatically shifts them into thinking dramatically!

Keep it Physical

Encourage the players to do things that require movement.  That physical activity keeps the game lively and makes it easier to for the playful spark to be transmitted back and forth. If someone says, something sedentary (ie, not dramatic!) you can say, “Why now?” in order to encourage them to pivot their more static activity into something that has drama. For example, “I’m reading a book.” becomes, “I’m reading a book for a test tomorrow but it is in a language I don’t understand!”.

Using Literature to Encourage Ideas

If kids seem to be drawing a blank, you can also encourage feats of bravery or hijinks like they might see in fairy tales or from their favorite book.  If you have a Harry Potter fan on your hands, they might say, “I’m playing quidditch!” When you anchor all the activities in the one story, it is a super fun and bonding way to build on the literature you are reading together.  You can even arrange the favorite picture books around the playing area so that it sparks ideas, characters and funny scenarios. For example, Curious George, Eloise, Otis, Amelia Bedelia, SkippyJon Jones, Elephant and Piggie (just to name a few) are so rich with exciting physical feats that picking from among their antics is a great way to dive into the playing.

Hope you enjoy “What are you doing?”!
Thanks for watching and playing!


Banner photo by Jody Christopherson.