May 22, 2020

Lessons in Playful Learning: Improvisation in Play

Samantha LeVangie

Samantha is a former Lead Preschool teacher and educational researcher who recently graduated from the Human Development and Psychology program at HGSE. She is passionate about supporting teachers and students in the early childhood classroom, and is particularly interested in the ways that schools promote the mental, physical and emotional well-being of ECE educators. Samantha worked as a research assistant on the Pedagogy of Play project for the 2019-20 school year, observing classrooms and talking with teachers and school leaders about playful learning in the US educational context.

My creative outlet is Improvisational Comedy, and I’ve been performing now for four years. If you’ve never seen an improv show, I’ll give you a brief run-down of what to expect: a group of six or so adults will run on stage and get a random suggestion of a word from the audience. That word will then inspire a 30- or 60-minute long story (and the result is often hilarious).

There is no telling what will happen until the first scene starts. The entire show is made up on the spot, and the performers and audience get to live in a constant state of surprise, finding joy in the choices the performers make on stage. It is an environment of constant risk-taking. But it’s not all that scary, because with this risk-taking comes a form of security. Improv performers work hard to build a trusting environment with each other. As a performer, I feel confident going on stage with no preparation, because I know my castmates will be there by my side to support me.

For the past several months, the Pedagogy of Play research team has been in and out of schools across Boston observing what makes learning playful. During observations and in reflecting on my own experience as a preschool teacher, I’ve noticed so much overlap between the ways performers work to create a playful environment for improvisation, and the ways teachers create a playful environment to foster learning in the classroom.

The golden rule is “Yes, and…”

The number one ‘rule’ of improv is “Yes, and…”. When someone makes a choice in a scene, you say “Yes” and build on that idea. This rule implies that there are no “wrong” choices. How can there be, if everything is made up? If your castmate walks on stage and says, “It’s hard work, being a cat," you agree. You are cats, and cats don’t have it easy. They have to lick their fur themselves! They have to find a proper place to nap, and must meow to remind their humans that it is time to be fed! How outrageous that they must do so many things for themselves. Now the scene will move forward, both of you cats, coming up with a plan for how to trick your humans into pampering you more so you can sit in the window and watch the squirrels scamper by. If you hear “it’s hard work, being a cat” and think “I’m not a cat!” or “That’s a weird thing to say,” you’ll make the other improvisor feel like they did something wrong, which often shuts down any feeling of playfulness.

My first improv team, Coyote, performing together

In order for classroom learning to feel playful, students in the classroom should feel like the ideas they offer are gifts. They should feel that even when their answer to a question is objectively wrong, their thinking and their effort is valued and accepted. For the teacher, this sometimes means taking a student’s idea and running with it. Christine, a fourth grade teacher at the Advent school in Boston, says during an interview that the moments that feel most playful to her are the ones where she acknowledges she doesn’t have all the answers and instead gets to be “innovative” with her students. For her, that means that while building pyramids during a unit on ancient Egypt, she leaves the task open-ended and lets her students ideas for how to build drive the objectives for her lesson. During that same unit a few weeks later, students are writing their own myths. When it is time to clean up, Christine notices how passionate students are about their characters in the story – some even acting like them. She runs with it, and encourages the entire classroom to clean up while in character, resulting in students laughing together while performing an otherwise routine task.

A student coordinates clean up while in the character of a smart, organized leader from her story. Her classmate pretends to be a grumpy old woman following directions.

Celebrate failure

Sometimes the best scenes in improv are the ones that go sideways. The scenes where the improvisors on stage are so overwhelmed with how ridiculous this is, that they break character and start laughing. When things get crazy or take a turn for the unexpected – like someone forgets a character’s name – we take it as an opportunity to make the scene even better. Instead of thinking “That was awful,” we think, “That surprised me! I wonder how we can make it work." When we get bogged down with feelings of failure and regret, we can’t go on with the show and maintain a playful mindset. Welcoming failure is necessary, because on stage you’ll fail a million times before you get it right. Instead of fearing failure, improvisors work to be curious about it. They problem solve to think of ways they might turn “failure” into something great.

In a recent show, we got an item from the audience – a tote bag – and when placed on my head it transformed me into a fish

In the classroom, it can be easy for students to feel overcome by feelings of failure and frustration. Living in that space makes it that much harder to persevere. For failure to be playful, students and teachers need to be curious about failure. They need to see failure not as an outcome, but as a sign that they should try something in a different way. Failure can be an opportunity to spark play if it is faced with curiosity and seen as an opportunity for growth. And while failure can be upsetting, it can also be funny! Did that model pyramid you build fall down? Let the falling be joyful, an opportunity to try to build it a little bit differently. Laugh in surprise. And then see it as an opportunity to build the model again, stronger and taller than before.

Build community

Performing an entirely made-up show wouldn’t be possible if the improvisors didn’t feel a sense of belonging with one another. People ask me all the time, “Why do you need to rehearse improv, if it’s all made up?” My answer is that our shows can only succeed if we feel bonded and connected to the people we’re performing with. Performance comes hand-in-hand with feelings of vulnerability, and it is so much harder to be vulnerable in a room of unfamiliar faces than on stage with a group of people you know and trust. To do that work, we check in with each other. We show up to each other's shows and applaud each other's work. We develop a respect for the skills that each person brings to a performance, which then instills a sense of confidence that brings us back up even when we’re feeling down.

Just as performing can make you feel vulnerable, so can learning. Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than admitting there is something you don’t know, and school is built on the idea that students don’t know things. Students in the classroom, when faced with a question they do not know the answer to, might feel exposed. How can we expect our students to engage in playful learning experiences when they are feeling vulnerable? One answer is to build community. Teachers can foster playful classroom environments by bonding with their students, and giving their students an opportunity to bond with each other. To do that work, teachers check in with their students, and students check in with each other when they get stuck. There are opportunities for members of the classroom community to applaud each other's work and demonstrate respect for the unique skillset each student brings to the table. Building a bonded, respectful, and supportive community can help that feeling of vulnerability subside.

When the lights go up on stage and I’m faced with an hour-long improvised show, my fear and vulnerability subside when I see my castmates’ encouraging expressions. "We’re in this together," I think to myself. Although I don’t know exactly what will happen on stage, I do know that I will feel supported endlessly by a group of peers that know and respect me. Armed with that knowledge, I feel ready to tackle any challenge.

My first improv team, Coyote, on stage together to try a new style of improv for the first time