Teaching improv to kids, Class #1 braindump

A quick recap: I started doing improv in August 2015. I loved it & realized that kids would really enjoy the games. I offered a class combining improv & drama games at our spring homeschool co-op, not expecting that it would sell out. Thinking I’d have maybe 10 kids, I ended up with 20 – which expanded to 23 by the end of the semester.

Due to the size of the class, I had to scale back my goals and focus on having as much fun as possible with a wide range of ages (8-15). This meant a lot of group games & exercises that would work well with the younger kids. When I tried small group exercises (say Booby Trap), the kids had trouble waiting. It’s hard to be patient when you’re revved up & excited!

And then there were the teens & tweens. During small group exercises they all gravitated to each other. Or rather, they gravitated toward each other no matter what we were doing! But they were under-served since we did way more group activities that precluded much actual improvisation.

All of that experience led to two separate classes for this semester – one for ages 8+ and another for ages 13+. Both had smaller enrollments (max 16 & 12, respectively). And both have different objectives: for the youngers, lots of games with minimal waiting to keep them engaged; for the olders, multiple opportunities to improvise in every class.

Yesterday was the first day of co-op and the difference in the two classes was night & day from the previous semester.

In the younger class, I began by talking about some basic stuff: listening (both as an important improv principle & also as a way to respect our classmates), keeping your hands to yourselves (some kids will snatch & play with any piece of clothing that can be removed from another human) and … avoiding mention of bodily functions. Just like sex is often a cheap joke for adults, bodily functions serve a similar purpose for kids. It’s a challenge to not have bodily functions as a crutch 😉

We started off with Silly Walks to warm up, then gathered in a circle. Rather than start off with Free Association, I told the kids that they could say any word – and almost all of their responses were associations (except for the inevitable jokesters, who were well within their rights to say whatever they wanted).

That was cool because we segued into Free Association and I was able to show them how natural it was to them. This was followed up by Alliteration Introductions – one round of just stepping in with names, followed by names, gesture & repeating as a group (where their instinct seems to be to run through to the other side of the group with whatever gesture they’re doing).

We then did a scene paint, where the kids ran up and described a physical space (in yesterday’s case, a classroom). Now I usually do improv with adults ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something. When we do scene paints, we easily run up one at a time, even if the class is near 30 people (as it was a few weeks back). With younger kids, one at a time might as well be all of y’all at once! I had them all go one at a time in a line instead. I should have remembered this from the last semester, when the exact same thing happened.

We moved on to Zip Zap Zop, trying to stay focused on eye contact. With adults we can usually hit warp speed after a bit; the kids have a ways to go before we get there but I want to get much closer by the end of the semester.

We closed with a couple of games of the classic Telephone since some of the kids were really excited about it. It’s not improv but it’s more important for the kids to know that their opinion & ideas matter – and I always want to foster an environment where they feel free to speak up. So we played and it was fun. And we closed with a game of Bang, which we could have played all class long last semester.

The teens about the start their robot scenes.

The teen class was immediately after and it went much more smoothly than the kids class (and far beyond any of last semester’s classes). After the same talk on listening & keeping hands to ourselves (minus the bodily functions bit), we started with a Free Association circle and … it went as smoothly as they do in my adult classes.

So as not to beat a dead horse, I moved on to the drama game, Introductions & Applause. I figured with a few new kids in the class that it would be a good way for the kids to introduce themselves on their own terms. Memo to self: tell the kids to move up in the line after the person ahead of them goes. Somehow adults do this naturally, maybe we actually did learn something back in school…

From there we split into two lines for some simple robot scenes. 3 lines of anything – statement, response, response – with no prompt. No right, no wrong – just doing some really simple scenes. It’s neat to see how some kids are ready with creative statements while others take the simple route (some scenes started with just Hi).

Next we worked on the Character of the Space – except I forgot to mention about agreeing with the activity. That led to a little confusion and some interesting scenes – but amazingly, when someone was in doubt the tendency was to mimic or do similar behavior. Now I also did not spend any time processing, which is a carryover from the kids class, so I’ve added processing as part of next week’s agenda.

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We moved on to Zip Zap Zop & Bibbity Bibbity Bop – and I’m not sure that doing them one after another was ideal. The energy level with kids, including teens, can get high really fast. And if a couple of kids are distracted it can easily derail an activity. I need to sequence activities better to keep energy levels from staying sky high for multiple activities in a row. Spending some time processing between activities can probably help with that.

We closed with a game of Twenty One- which was very interesting. It’s deceptively simple but quite challenging. We only got as far as 10 (which one of was convinced we wouldn’t reach). What was really cool was a few times when individuals piped up to talk strategy. I tried guiding them towards slower & more relaxed counting but … I didn’t have to. The teens addressed issues themselves, either talking strategy before starting, asking others to not shout numbers, etc. I’m going to keep playing 21 until we make it to 21 – it should be interesting to see how it progressed and what the teens do.

In case you’re wondering, I organize my class with Trello and use it for reference throughout the class on my phone.

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