Pat Sciortino



Skill Development through Improvisational Play

To be truly motivated, all learners, not just Twice-exceptional ones, must embrace the goals they are asked to meet, know explicitly what is at stake and actually buy into the promised rewards for achieving those goals. (Video games have this psychology down pat). Theater games, the basis of improvisational play, and their short-term goals provide authentic contexts that are urgent and clear because the dramatic problems and solutions originate out of the players own imaginations. Two dynamic elements essential to authentic social learning are: unplanned collaboration and incremental problem solving. Sharing reality during improvisational play compels players to collaborate while problem solving moment to moment. The potential to be successful based on the mastery of collaboration aspires learners to be social. The consistency of skill development in improvisational play provides opportunity for the eventual synthesis of learned social behaviors and the natural disposition of the learner.

The philosophy of play as a vehicle for social, emotional and even cognitive development is not a new idea to early childhood education. Piaget’s cognitive development theory, Erikson’s psycho-social theory and Vygotsky’s socio cultural theory all focus on the relationship between play and cognitive, social, and emotional skill development. But it is thanks to Viola Spolin, theater educator and internationally acclaimed originator of theater games, that play began to be used as the means of building social behavior in school-aged children. Spolin believed that children would feel more invested in the outcome of this social meeting of minds by presenting their own ideas as opposed to ideas dictated by a supervising adult. Social thinking is inherent in Spolin’s theater games and in all creative structures and tasks. A perk of improvisational play is learning social thinking from two perspectives, that of the player and that of the audience member.

The skills developed through improvisational play are life skills necessary to becoming a well-rounded social, emotional, thinking human being. It offers a stage for players of all learning styles to flourish. Its creative process provides an outlet for kinesthetic learners to use activity as a means of creating and driving their story.  Players with strong verbal skills use their individual and broad based knowledge to create and drive their stories, and visualizing strengths can be put to use when giving substance to imaginary objects created within their stories. Improvisational play invites 2e perfectionists to embrace their many gifts while focusing on strengthening lagging skills.

The main tenet of improvisational play is accepting every offer given by your playing partner.  “No creative thought or created thing grows out of a negative impulse” (Psychology Today 1996), and no improvisational story can build out of a shared reality when other’s ideas are negated. So the first challenge novice players will face is the mandate to accept ideas that are not their own…or at least, give the ideas of others a chance. The late Steve Jobs even saw this social skill as vital to creating a productive business model. He provided improvisational play as professional development for his creative staff, focusing on the spirit  of “Yes, and then...” for more productive story meetings. The same idea applies to more productive social interaction. Accepting another’s ideas means you are prepared to exchange information, the give and take of dialogue that is conversation.

The overwhelmingly magical feeling of meeting the goals of the theater games through collaboration and problem solving, and getting laughs to boot, is positive reinforcement for social thinking development. These new social thinkers will soon seek a larger playing field outside improvisational play to reap the rewards of being social.