Teaching Through Improv
There is an incalculably important aspect of child development which is, sadly, widely overlooked and underestimated. I am talking, of course, about humor. Humor is a touchstone--a lighthouse along the path to the development of the core concepts of empathy and compassion. Humor allows one to look at things both critically and creatively. It allows us to step back from the ego and to move away from the unfortunate and blatantly false development of our own deeply serious person mythologies, which so often handicap us and trip us up on the path to success and the pursuit of happiness.
Because the appreciation of humor and the ability to be funny are governed by different parts of the brain, while empathy is governed by yet another, however, humor and empathy are quite actually governed by portions of the human brain that touch.
You see, children’s brains are malleable. New neural pathways are constantly forming and re-forming. Kids begin learning well before they ever develop a solid sense of self. It strikes me that during this formative period, children are incredibly empathetic. Empathy and compassion are deeply important aspects of the human condition. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they might be the single most important part of the human experience. And this ability to step outside of the subjective experience that is the “self” is somehow miraculously formed before any sense of “self” takes hold.
Children are sponges. It is to our own detriment as well as theirs when we saturate them with only the worst life has to offer. But alas, many of us do just that. It is my belief that the American school systems provide a good portion of the quantity and quality of what our kids are exposed to while their brains are in this critical stage of development. The formation of a solid foundation for the personality and sense of self a child will experience for the rest of their lives starts at 8 years of age. Imagine what damage—or what opportunities for beautiful, bountiful growth and a world of endless possibilities could be opened within the mind of a child at this tender age.
I am of the firm belief that while our country’s teachers absolutely and unequivocally deserve excellent pay and compensation, and while there are some truly excellent teachers out there, changing American kids’ lives for the better (shout out to Mr. Kingston over at Crystal Lake Central High School for cultivating an environment wherein a young woman with an invisible illness and the ‘wrong’ genes in her family tree felt for the first time ever like her writing voice was worthy of being heard.), we are, by and large, missing the mark. Many countries have surpassed the United States by leaps and bounds with regard to how they are educating their kids.Shame on us for doing our kids the disservice of failing to follow in those countries’ progressive footsteps with regard to education. One of the lessons the American educational system seems to willfully refuse to learn is that quality and quantity are two utterly separate concepts.
Kids, like adults, learn, in large part, through humor, through hands-on experience, and through play. If you’re beginning to wonder whether I am a student of Piaget right now, let me tell you—I am. However, I am also a fan of firm boundaries and of being (and teaching our kids to be) assertive and authoritative, rather than dominant, authoritarian, passive-aggressive or passive.
My strategy for co-creating learning experiences with children centers largely around humor—and not just humor in the broad sense, but specifically around the art of improv. Facilitating lessons through improvisation and play allows us, as the adults, to be rather a senior partner in the 60/40 partnership of getting children off to a good head start in life. Below I will describe an instance I recently experienced while out shopping, which reminded me of the importance of empathetic improvisation and play in developing good relationships and good foundations for future learning with our children (and make no mistake—it does take a village to show a kid what the world is like. Kids get enough bad, upsetting and scary input as is, so it is up to us as fully capable and mentally and emotionally developed adults to create opportunities for true empathetic and compassionate learning about themselves, the world around them, and those in it, for the children in out communities and in our country).
My Mom and I were at Homegoods today. We saw this little kid who was using a grabber as a laser gun. No one was playing along and he looked sad, so I walked up and was like "pew-pew AHHH! You got me! I'm shot! Argh!" He was SO happy someone actually played along. My Mom went to the back to use the restroom, and I was standing in one of the aisles while this kid and his family were leaving, and he legit did not want to leave the store. He kept going "but she's my friend! She's my friend!" He just needed someone to act like they were hit by his invisible laser gun and play along with him. His whole face lit up. I love doing bits and improv and yes and games. They're really great for kids' brain development, and the beautiful thing is that kids remember the adults who play along and join in the fun. It becomes a way for them to address problem-solving and to learn through play. Kids have an instinctive sense for comedy too. They are hilarious--and not nearly as often by accident as they are on purpose. If you don't believe me, Google the police officer who plays Barbie's with the kids on his beat. Kids learn through play. Their brains do not function the way ours do. Countries like Denmark, Iceland and Germany know this, as their school curriculums consist mainly of play and only last for a couple of hours a day. Shame on is for not following their lead. Shame on us for forgetting about the plethora of opportunities gifted to us through the simple innocence of childhood. Shame on us for trying to force our kids to be little adults or carbon copies of the idealized versions of ourselves. Shame on us...Shame on us for forgetting to laugh at the silly things... I say laugh with your kids, play along, take things to their logical extreme--even for discipline. I was a teacher in a former life. I took a whole extra course load in college to supplement my psychology education so that I could become a qualified, bonafide, highly credentialed teacher of kindergarten and pre-k.
One of the most important things you can do with kids—not just your own, but all kids you interact with—is to laugh, to play, and to facilitate lessons learned through play. For instance, when a kid in my class saw a classmate take their favorite toy or classroom pencil and throw themselves on the ground crying and wailing and howling like a dying animal, pretending to be grievously wounded both emotionally and physically, I would stop the entire class, throw down whatever I was working on and yell just as loudly as the screaming kid "OH MY GOD! IT MUST BE A COMPLETE EMERGENCY! EVERYONE STOP EVERYTHING THEY ARE DOING RIGHT NOW SO WE CAN ALL FREAK OUT!" Sometimes I’d get really silly and turn in circles or roll around on the ground like Chris Farley in a particularly high energy take of an episode of Saturday Night Live.
If this didn't do the trick and get everyone laughing, I would continue the bit and get the kid who was crying in on it (making sure that everyone held onto the understanding that we were laughing WITH and not AT one another). I'd say something like "are you okay? Do you think you'll live?!? Can you hear me?! DON’T GO INTO THE LIGHT!" At which point I'd pretend to check them over for mortal wounds and perhaps even ask if I should call for an ambulance. This would always get the entire class laughing--especially the kid who was so upset about the crayon, toy or pencil. The thought of their minor upset over the pencil or toy or crayon would be obliterated by my histrionics, and even if they were trying super hard to hold onto that façade of anger and not crack a smile, they could never last more than a few seconds. In fact, oftentimes, the child in question would have only to look at me before they cracked up laughing.
To take things down a few notches, I'd start a discussion that would go something like this: "Kimberley*, I wonder how you felt when Lucas* took your favorite pencil. How did that make you feel?" Then Kimberley would tell me how she felt. I would ask her if since the pencil meant a lot to her in this moment, she thought it might be kind to share with Lucas for a while and in the interest of fairness, to make a deal that she’ll switch with Lucas when he’s finished drawing this last picture and that if Lucas chose not to keep his word and switch up with Kimberley, I would step in. I would often allow my kids to come to these decisions on their own, simply prompting them to formulate their own solutions via trial and error and open-ended questions.
Then, all the kids would feel heard, we would all have learned a lesson and had a laugh, and I’d try to help them to establish context by asking them if, while it can be so upsetting when our neighbor uses the pencil (or toy, or crayon, etc.) we planned on using and REALLY REALLY wanted to use, if there was anything else Lucas, Kimberley, and class could think of that might also be upsetting—perhaps equally or more upsetting than the pencil situation, or perhaps a reason why a friend or neighbor in our classroom might really need to use the item we originally wanted to use. I’d have the class take turns with a talking feather or just raising their hands and I’d facilitate a discussion with them about things that hurt our own and others’ feelings, and what each student could plan on doing if such a situation occurred.
Often times, our discussions would get really silly, and everyone would get to laughing (which is WAY better than crying, screaming and rolling around like we’re on fire as may have been done initially by the upset student), but I’d always try to bring things back around to acknowledging our own and each other’s feelings and boundaries, and to engaging our problem-solving skills. I think every story should end with something silly that will cement the lesson in place. Play around with those logical extremes. Kids are great partners for that. Do everyday improv. I used to do this with the kids in my classroom when I was teaching Pre-K and Kindergarten. I would even challenge my kids to do over the top impressions of me when someone else in the class misbehaved (making certain that we were always learning together and laughing with one another and not at one another). Everyone would end up laughing, no one got angry and no one had hurt feelings--and the lessons stuck.
My kindergartners would get time toward the end of the day to do impressions of Ms. Dominique for prizes, high fives, laughs and video game time. I would start them off with something silly and then have them decide how I might react (somehow it almost always ended with a neck roll, hands on the hips and the death stare--see what I mean? Kids pick up on things--especially through humor!). And then, something happened. My classrooms began disciplining themselves. My kids began regulating their own behavior and even working together to find solutions to problems they might otherwise not have felt empowered to solve. So... Try it. Put my expensive education in psychology, early childhood education and philosophy to work for you at no cost, today! 😂And remember, we were all kids once.