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Improv for Social-Emotional Learning: Serious Play

When Julie Ann Korpi, a New York library programmer and educator, runs a program she is ready to play. Seriously. This is important, because most of those patrons are under the age of 17, and as an improviser and musician, she provides the kind of socially rich and emotionally empowering experiences the education world increasingly recognizes as essential for learning to live and succeed in the 21st century. “When we play we can explore ourselves,” states Korpi. “That’s why young children are encouraged to play; it’s essential to their development. However, the whole process can help strengthen speaking skills, creativity, as well as emotional awareness and intelligence.”

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The games she uses have clear structure and rules — which give children the boundaries and guidelines they need to succeed when engaging with other people — that create space for imagination and communication of ideas. In a game called “The Martha” for example, “I select a location for a scene,” she explains. “Then, the actors become things in the scene. If it is a park someone may be a tree or a park bench. I like to start as a “still image.” Then, if it makes sense to move, the actors may move. For example, the tree might shake in the wind. Then, we add noise if it makes sense.” If the location is a kitchen, the players may become things found in a kitchen. A stage picture gradually emerges as players jump in as a new item or a new dimension to an existing item. This simple process trains children to pay attention, communicate clearly and collaborate with others to create something entirely new.

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This kind of play is “the major mechanism whereby higher regions of the brain get socialized,” according to “The Serious Need For Play” in Scientific American Mind Special Collector’s Edition, Winter 2014. “We don’t become socially competent by authority figures telling us how to behave, we gain those skills by interacting with our peers, learning what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

Another example of social-emotional learning woven into a highly engaging play is the game “You Should Buy My…” — a title coined by Korpi — in which an actor pulls an item out of a bag and has to try to convince others to buy it. “The key is, they can’t sell the item for what it really is, e.g. if they pull out a necktie, it becomes an amazing magical cleaning rag or a hair accessory.” Or the Party Game, in which Korpi chooses one child to play the host and one or more others play the guest(s). “Each guest picks a profession. For the younger kids, I ask them to whisper it to me so I can coach them a bit if needed,” Korpi explains. “The guest knocks on the door and begins to talk to the host about their day at work without using their title or a word closely related to the title. For example, a singer can say, “my concert went well today!” but not, “I was singing so much today!” After a few minutes, the host guesses what the guest’s profession is. After everyone goes, I have the students change roles for another round.”

Each of these examples demonstrate the 4 “c’s” of improvisation: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication, which are also form the foundation of a skill set for navigating life and work in the 21st century. “Not only does it hone communication and public speaking skills, it also stimulates fast thinking and engagement with ideas. On a deeper level, improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking — that internal editor who crosses out every word before it appears on a page — and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses,” states Deana Criess, director of ImprovBoston’s National Touring Company — who teaches the form to seventh-graders among others, in the article “How Improv Can Open Up The Mind To Learning In The Classroom and Beyond” in MindShift. “Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others.”

“Social-emotional learning emphasizes the personal and relational skills researchers and employers say students need to succeed both inside and outside the classroom, skills like social awareness and self-management. Measurements that track how students are performing in these areas would help schools decide if their approaches and programs are successful, educators say, and some policymakers have pushed for more precise measurements that might allow for the inclusion of so-called non-cognitive skills in states’ school accountability models.” Education Week, Aug. 10, 2017

Libraries who offer improv groups for children and teens are supporting the development of essential life skills that translate into real life challenges faced every day in our increasingly fast-paced and technology-driven world. “Improvisation involves a series of actions and reactions without preparation. Players in improv acting games create an original scene in the moment. The structure and rules of the games encourages actors to create their own lines quickly,” Korpi explains. “During improv acting, students must think on their feet, cast off shy feelings, tap into their emotions, cooperate as a team, and use their own creativity. These skills are applicable to adulthood. Improv acting is a wonderful way to become comfortable speaking publicly and during interviews.”

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These library programs are important contributions to the community. As Korpi explains, “For teens and tweens, improv acting game programs at the library can develop into a special social experience that many communities do not provide. Many school districts do not offer drama-driven classes and extra-curricular activities. Theater can provide students who do not have an aptitude for sports, for instance, with a sense of belonging among a group of like-minded people. Improv acting allows for people to develop an emotional connection without awkward, forced personal conversation. A patron can ask another why he or she chose to portray a character a certain way or lead the scene in a particular direction.” Because most participants attend more than one session and often begin to bring friends, attendance at libraries who offer them increases. Improv is play with benefits that extend beyond the immediacy and joy of the experience. And its fun. Seriously.

Visit Julie Ann Korpi’s website: theaterandmusicwithmissk.weebly.com for more information about her or to book an event! Follow her at #the8rNmusicmissk

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, who is president of Lifestage, Inc, which provides creative personal and professional development workshops and classes and is approved by NYS as a provider of continuing education for social workers. She is 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.



LCSW, CGP, MT & Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, consultant/trainer and writer/performer. www.lifestage.org, www.mostlytruethings.com



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