Improvisation and the Transformative Potential of Play

Schools are often exceptionally competitive places. There are so many mechanisms to compare and sort students that it can be difficult to encourage a spirit of togetherness and cooperation. Improvisational theater and its underlying progressive principles have the potential to transform school culture and reorient students and educators towards a more human and democratic approach to education.

Although it exists outside of the contemporary education sector, improvisation has deep roots in some of the foundational theories of twentieth-century progressive education. Viola Spolin, the founder of American improvisation, considered her teaching methods non-authoritarian, non-verbal, and non-psychological. Spolin was a student of the education theorist Neva Boyd, a contemporary of Jane Addams and John Dewey at the Hull House in Chicago. Boyd believed that the democratic potential of education could be achieved in part through non-competitive play.

Boyd and Spolin believed in the power of games to teach language skills, as well as encourage strong, prosocial behaviors among students because everyone must agree on the rules and follow them for a game to be any fun. Play can be transformative, both for the individual student and the group. Improvisation, a form of play, builds confidence and community.

In improvisation, there are three basic rules: first, support your scene partners; second, completely commit to what you are doing; and third, say “yes, and…” make a contribution to the scene. Classrooms should be spaces for spirited discourse and freedom of thought and expression. A shared understanding of core community values makes it possible to foster this
critical engagement. Support, commitment, and a willingness to say “yes, and…” are the building blocks of a safe, supportive, and critically engaged community.

When I talk about the value of games in the classroom, many people assume I mean competitions. That is, games with clear winners and losers. For high achieving students with a healthy sense-of-self, it may be possible to separate the outcome of a competition with their sense of self-worth, but for students who struggle academically and socially, losing a game is just another confirmation that they will never measure up to their “smarter” and more “talented” classmates.

Therefore, the games that work best are those that everybody plays and no one loses. These are games based on improvisation with clear and flexible rules that enable students to engage one another without fear of judgment by their teacher or peers. These games encourage students to take risks, look silly, and support one another. In doing so, they create the conditions
necessary for deliberate democratic decision-making. By agreeing to abide by a shared set of rules, students develop the capacity to cooperate and engage one another constructively. A return to the progressive pedagogical values embedded in improvisation and the use of improvisation games in the classroom can help build confidence and community among students and enable education to fulfill its role in fostering a healthy democracy