children playing

Improv: Not Quite Children’s Play

I have heard improv teachers over the years describe improv to the lay person as something that “gets us to play like when we were children — like when we played house or on the playground – pure, spontaneous and no judgement.” I have even used some of this language in my marketing.

But lately, as the parent of three-and-a-half year old, I believe that image is false.

I have watched my daughter play with other toddlers, and I’ve realized their natural instincts are to want to control the play. It is about conquering versus collaborating. They are toddlers and they want to get their way. I hear a lot of “No” and “You can’t do that.”

The whole idea of “yes and”-ing and agreeing to the imaginary circumstance in a child’s play scenario does not come automatically to these little creatures, as I once believed. And there doesn’t seem to be an expectation to this, even if the child’s parent happens to be an improv teacher.

The other day my daughter had a play date with one of her friends from preschool. And my daughter was constantly saying “No” to her friend’s ideas while they were playing.

“We’re playing picnic!” Betsy would say.

“How about we have a tea party at the picnic?” her friend would say.

“No, there’s no tea at the picnic,” she’d respond.

After one too many “No, you can’t do that” responses, her friend wanted to go home. She was in tears and wanted her Mommy.

I was almost in tears, too. Lauren did a great job of holding Betsy’s friend and calming her down, and it was clear she did not want to continue to play with my daughter.

Who would?

This broke my heart.

I was angry at my daughter for behaving like this to her friend. I also could identify with her friend and I felt sad for all the times I had been told “No” in my house as a kid. Her friend was showing me how I feel when I am shut down by other people.

As painful as this was to watch, it taught me a lot, and it made me grateful that as improvisers we are “trained” to agree on stage to the imaginary circumstances that our fellow improvisers put forth. We are learning the very important skill of negotiation.

As improvisers on stage, we agree to the who, what and where of the scene, and that is foundation for our play. And when we don’t agree to those basic things, the scene sputters and stumbles. We don’t even have a chance to play because we have killed it before we got started.

When you say “no” to someone else’s ideas, it affects the relationship with the other player on a cellular level — the same way it affected my daughter’s friend.

So the whole idea of “yes, and” may not be as innate as I once thought, but luckily, it’s a skill that can be leaned and that’s why to get good at improv, you have to keep doing it because you are literally rewiring your brain to say “yes” to other people’s ideas.

Martin DeMatt and Jay Sukow believed that improv can changes lives. I never really believed that until I became a parent, and I hope these skills are something I can teach my daughter soon.

Want to try improv for the first time or looking for a new approach? Sign up now for Jimmy’s Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy Workshop, happening Jan. 25!

1 reply
    JIM READEY says:

    I always say that improv is like playing as a child with friends who knew how to “play well”.Not all kids do.

    I suspect learning how to say “no” and to lead and impose our will in a given situation is a very valuable survival tool — so I celebrate your daughter’s honing this. I’m guessing, at that age, she doesn’t always know the distinction between “playtime” and “just being in life” time. As you are sharing with us, that’s a learned skill, too. At 3 1/2, she’s got time, eh…?


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