Social and Emotional Learning Through Improv

Spring 2021

By Stephanie Wendell

I’ve been doing improv for almost 20 years and teaching it for over 10, and I have always found a correlation between improv and the development of social and emotional skills. Last year, I attended a workshop at The Kennedy Center led by Jeff Poole, the education director of the world-famous improvisation troupe The Second City, that solidified my own findings. In a challenging year that is constantly changing, the skills practiced in improv are more valuable than ever.

The Second City experts demonstrated that the exercises and improv games I teach my students are being used to promote learning and positive relationships in other disciplines. In addition to teaching improv as part of the performing arts curriculum, I believe that it is valuable because of the social and emotional development aspects it offers:
  • Building relationships
  • Accepting failure
  • “Yes, and…” (accepting and building on an idea)
  • Social awareness
  • Expressive language
  • Active listening and empathy
  • Labeling and exploring emotions—e.g., “What does it look like when someone is angry or sad?”
A relationship-building game I have used is Red Ball. Players stand in a circle, and one student makes eye contact with another and offers them an imaginary ball saying, "Red ball?" The second student responds, “Yes, red ball.” The ball is tossed to the second student who says, “Thank you, red ball.” That student now makes eye contact with a third, and the exchange continues.

“Red Ball” can be a challenge at first, but with some practice, even the shyest students are building relationships through eye contact with their peers. After the class is more comfortable, I start adding other imaginary items to pass around: a different colored ball, kittens, heavy suitcases, mice in top hats...whatever! This now becomes a game of focus, multitasking, and concentration. I use this game in my drama classroom to promote ensemble building, but this could be useful in a homeroom or advisory setting or as a warm-up activity in any other class. After a year or more of Zoom learning, this could be a great exercise to practice eye contact and student interactions, while maintaining social distancing.

Another useful game is Hitchhiker; it promotes active listening and empathy, labeling of emotions, and expressive language. Five players use chairs to set up a car. The first player is the driver, and the other four players stand off to the side trying to hitch a ride. The game begins with the driver introducing herself and her journey. An example is “I’m so excited to go to the annual Star Wars Celebration. I have my lightsaber, my Ewokese translation book.…" The driver sees the first player trying to hitch a ride and invites them into the car. Players enter the car one by one with a specific character choice or quirk. Each time a new character enters the car, the other players adopt these characteristics. If, for example, the first player who gets into the car and is a germaphobe, the driver is now also a germaphobe, and they both complain about germs and cleaning. The driver will then invite a new player into the car, and the original players adopt that person’s characteristic; this continues until there are five people in the car. I can imagine a history or English class using this exercise to explore historical figures or characters from a novel. I might also use “Hitchhiker” at the first rehearsal of a production to get the group into a “yes” frame of mind or to increase students’ self-awareness.

“Hitchhiker” is also a fun, silly game that can loosen up a group of students. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has found that there is a strong correlation between a student's ability to concentrate and perform well in class and how pleasant they are feeling emotionally. An exciting game like “Hitchhiker” could also be used to energize a class before a lesson or assessment.

Improvisers are always asking themselves in scenes, “Where do I fit in? And how can I contribute?” The game “String of Pearls” enables students to read the room and find their place. A player stands to one side of the classroom and says a story’s opening line; another player stands on the opposite side and states the story’s closing line. These lines can be anything:
  • Player one 1: “As he walked to school, the boy had no idea what adventure was before him.” 
  • Player two 2: “The boy looked back to the bridge knowing that things would never be the same.” 
 It is now up to the other players to fill in the blanks. Students can enter the story with a line at any point, but the goal is to have a complete, coherent story by the time everyone has contributed a line. For this exercise to be successful, players cannot judge the lines that have been performed; they can only accept and build on them. This is an excellent way to improve sequencing skills, collaboration, and storytelling. This could also be used as a class warm-up before any writing activity. Students could also act out historical events or a cycle in science class!.

There are many social and emotional skills that can be developed in the improvisational format; however, there is a risk of failure in all of these exercises. One of my goals is that my students will learn to accept failures as a moment of growth in my classroom so that if they make a mistake on stage—or on an assessment in an academic subject—they will have the tools to move on and improve.

The lesson of growing from failures has been especially helpful in this challenging year. Many of the activities I have presented over Zoom or in a HyFlex environment have been successful, while others have fallen flat. That’s OK! I try to model for my students in the moment and tell them that I tried something new and it didn’t quite work, but because I’m an improviser, I can move on, change course, and try again. I encourage them to adopt this mindset in my class with drama activities and hope that it carries them through challenges in other classes and beyond.

Not all students want to be actors or professional improvisers, but the tenets of improv transcend the drama classroom. I hope that you will consider using one of these exercises to cultivate an environment where students feel uninhibited and safe to learn, explore, and grow. A good improviser is an excellent listener, is empathetic, can “read the room,” and is resilient. Now, more than ever, these are all qualities that we want to cultivate in our students, right? “Yes! And.…” 
Improv Resources: SEL Resource: 
Stephanie Wendell

Stephanie Wendell ([email protected]) is the Arts Department Chair and Performing Arts Teacher at The Siena School in Silver Spring, MD.