Five Improv Games for Joyful Student Writing
Classroom educators can use theater games to support the ELA curriculum
Improvisation games can provide student writing with incredible benefits and nurture belonging and joy inside the classroom. I’ve seen this first-hand as a theater teacher working alongside elementary school educators as we make meaningful connections with curriculum and the arts.
Simply defined, improvisation (improv) is when a person performs without a script. In collaboration with elementary school teachers, I use improv games as a “first draft”, to generate ideas, release inhibitions, and get into a creative flow before students put pen to paper. Additionally, improvisations also help during the writing process. They can be used to add emotion, devise dialogue and encourage sophisticated word choice. I call this approach, “writing on your feet”.
Aside from being a powerful asset to learning, theater games can contribute to an inclusive and joyful community. They give students experiences with empathy and perspective-taking and are therefore a tangible way to bring SEL into your classroom. Fourth grade ELA teacher, Katie Giordano of Brooklyn, New York says of her collaboration with Child’s Play NY, “Writing on our feet has awakened and engaged the writer in everyone. Kids really see themselves as creative and competent writers who have something to say.”
You don’t need to have theater training to offer students this kind of artistic tool. Viola Spolin, a renowned drama teacher said, “Theater games are not just for actors, they are for anyone who wants to develop their creativity, communication skills, and ability to work with others.” The games have a simple scaffolding that can be tailored to your writing curriculum as well as the age and abilities of your students. The more you play them, the more you will be able to adapt them to your groups, the levels of the student writing, and your own teaching style.
What Improvisation Gives to Student Writing
One of the many benefits of improvisation is that it can be done in small groups or partners. The latest research shows that small-group work engages students and keeps learning active and collaborative. Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University says, “Group work can increase student engagement and motivation, foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and provide opportunities for peer teaching and learning.” Additionally, improvisation provides opportunities for rich differentiated learning. When teachers use theater games they can provide specific feedback and tailor the prompts to match the abilities of the small group.
“Theater games are a powerful tool for building teamwork, communication, and trust. When we play together, we learn to work together.”
– Augusto Boal, Theater Educator
Improvisation supports communication. These games are a great way to practice listening and responding. In many improvs, students have to find a variety of ways to express their ideas and make their points. This enriches student writing by giving them practice with sophisticated word choice.
Improvisation is the ultimate idea generator. In persuasive writing, students can use improv to brainstorm their arguments. In creative student writing, the improvs can help generate characters, plot points and dialogue. It can set the creative wheels in motion so kids feel inspired to write. You can use improv as a simple pre-writing warm-up or opening circle activity.
When we give students permission to “play” they have an opportunity to tap into their imagination. “Improvisation is a way of engaging with the world that values creativity, spontaneity, and playfulness.” says Alison Gopnik, a world-renowned expert in child development.
SEL in Action
Improvisation can bring humor and levity to the classroom, making it the ultimate social-emotional learning tool. Laughing together fosters connection, flooding the brain with dopamine. Dr. Jennifer Aaker, Professor at Stanford Business School says, “Humor is one of the most important things we can cultivate in life. It helps us to be more resilient, to connect with others, and to find joy in the midst of difficulties.” Especially as our young people emerge from the pandemic and are still coping with the aftermath of learning loss and isolation, it is vital to find ways to laugh together in the classroom.
With improvisation, students can generate stories that matter to them on a personal level. Young people feel a sense of belonging and build their identity in rooms where their stories are valued and the ideas they originate are spoken aloud. This can therefore be a powerful tool in culturally responsive teaching.
Movement in the Classroom
Improvisation provides kinesthetic learning which supports retention, engagement and motivation in students. Movement breaks in the classroom keep student participation high and in the classroom can break up lessons and improve learning and benefit cognition. At their best, improvisations are physical, bringing students onto their feet and committing to gestures and strong choices which they can later put in their student writing.
Start with Yes…And!
Whatever game you choose to play, it’s important to begin by teaching the classic improvisation tenant, “yes…and”. When applied, the players acknowledge their scene partner’s “proposition” (that’s the “Yes” part). Then, they contribute a new idea to the scene themselves (that’s the “and” part). The phrase encourages both a supportive environment and dynamic interaction. The following shows just how far “yes and” can take you:
Here is an example of dialogue in which the players didn’t agree on the “proposal”.
Gwen: Check out my new dog!
Penelope: I don’t see a dog.
The first student now has nowhere to go with the scene, and has to come up with a new idea to keep the ball rolling. However, after reminding the students to agree and add on, the dialogue might go something like this:
Gwen: Check out my new dog!
Penelope: I see it…it just ate my homework!
Gwen: Ha! Your mom is gonna be so mad.
Penelope: Wait a second, that was YOUR homework!
With a simple “yes…and”, the students are collaborating and on their way to building an interesting story together. This phrase is the foundation on which all improvisations in the classroom can be built.
Game Examples to Spark Student Writing
Somebody-Wanted-But-So-Then Story Starters
A group of five students builds a story together. Each student is assigned one of the following words:
Using this sequence, they improvise together, building on each other’s ideas to develop a new story. Here’s a video resource for a more in-depth look.
Students act as experts being interviewed on the news. The teacher can be the “anchor” and call on them to debate the merits of a given topic. Their points ultimately can become paragraphs in a persuasive essay.
Two students improvise a short scene. The audience can help suggest the first location (a bank, a school, top of a mountain, etc) and relationship (friends, substitute teacher + student, tour guide + tourist, etc). After at least 10 seconds into the scene, another student yells “Freeze!”, taps out one of the players, assumes their exact body position, and starts a brand new scene. Scenes with a high degree of physicality are encouraged since students are inspired by that to make their new scenarios. Young writers get experience playing with setting, characters and high-stakes situations for their creative writing. Here’s a video, with educators from Child’s Plat NY improvising and sharing more details on how to play.
“Said is Dead”
In partnerships, students practice sophisticated word choice finding alternatives to the non-descript word “said”. They take a piece of dialogue from their own writing or a book, or even a simple sentence (ex: “That’s my hat!”, said Jenna) and change the word “said” to a different descriptive verb (ie: whined, yelled, whispered, etc). Their partner then acts out the sentence using the new prompt from the verb. This expressive game reinforces the power of specific language. Students can then revise their fiction writing to include more descriptive word choice in their character’s dialogue.
“Incorporating play into the classroom doesn’t mean abandoning academic goals. Instead, it means recognizing that play is an essential part of learning and finding ways to integrate it into the curriculum. When children are engaged in play, they are more motivated to learn, and their brains are better able to absorb and retain information.”
– Tina Payne Bryson, psychotherapist and researcher
Autobiography Hot Seat
Establish a dramatic framing device with students (as themselves) being interviewed as important guests on a talk show. They can discuss their life, their weekend, likes or dislikes. Their answers to the thought-provoking questions (asked by their peers), could jumpstart ideas for an autobiographical piece. You can combine this with Expert/Emotion to give kids a boost of SEL. This is also a great back-to-school game to establish trust and community.
Other Games for Student Writing
Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and speaker in the field of child development says that, “Incorporating play into the classroom doesn’t mean abandoning academic goals. Instead, it means recognizing that play is an essential part of learning and finding ways to integrate it into the curriculum. When children are engaged in play, they are more motivated to learn, and their brains are better able to absorb and retain information.” Improvisation games specifically provide a blueprint for teachers to bring play into the classroom that allows for differentiated learning and customization. Students practice teamwork, flexible thinking and develop their voice as they go from “stage to page”. When students bring the “yes…and” mindset to this work, it can lead, not just to prolific content, but material that is as unique as the writers themselves, rich characters, emotions and details.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jocelyn Greene is the Founder and Executive Director of Child’s Play NY, an award-winning theater education company based in New York. She and her team of professional actors run classes, residencies, camps, birthday parties, and social and emotional learning-aligned workshops. In addition, she partners with dozens of schools to bring ELA and Social-Studies programming to life through the theater and use the dramatic arts for professional development training. To work with Jocelyn in your school, schedule a free consultation here.