Families That Play Together: Improv-ing Communication Between Parents and Kids
A dad with two sons come to an improv workshop for parents and kids. The brothers are talking over each other, climbing on each other, and for most of the session, both struggle to be the focus of attention. The facilitators introduce a game called “One Word Story” in which the group tells a story by taking turns, each person speaking one word at a time. The next day, the dad sends an email saying “my sons have been playing One Word At A Time all evening long. They are sharing focus. They are concentrating on what the other is saying.” That grateful parent realized immediate results from a game that demonstrates the fundamentals of great communication: the ability to listen, share focus, and connect to what another person expresses. This gave space to for him to interact with his kids in a thoughtful way. And its fun, which is extremely helpful for teaching kids — and adults who used to be kids — with a heavy dose of joy and positive energy. This is just one example of the potent impact of improvisation games that husband and wife team Mary Theresa Archbold and Pat Shay use in their work with families. For them, play is right there in the name of their business— True Play — a company that offers workshops for parents and their kids that teach “tools of creativity and collaboration.” They also co-host a new podcast called Funny Parents — now available on ITunes — featuring parents who work in the comedy industry telling stories about raising their kids.
These partners come with impeccable improv credibility. Mary is a dancer, actress, and improviser. Recent appearances include the off-Broadway plays The Healing and The Cost Of Living, her solo show Dance With Me: The Devolution Of The Dance, and she has been featured on NPR’s Moth radio hour and This American Life. Pat is on the faculty of The Pit-NYC and is one of a very few improvisers to have played on House Teams and/or touring companies of IO Chicago, UCB, The Second City, and The PIT. It is also worth mentioning, in the interest of full disclosure and because it makes me happy to think about it, that both have shared their storytelling talent with the audience of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, the game-wrapped-in-a-storytelling show that I host.
Relationships are the infrastructure of our lives, and communication is the glue that holds it all together. Play shapes relationships through subtle and deceptively simple exercises that have rules but not rigidity, structure enough for both safety and spontaneity. Because improv games are intrinsically rewarding, the skills they cultivate are more likely to be remembered and deployed in real life situations. “A boy on the autism spectrum took great joy from watching his dad follow him in a mirror exercise,” Mary and Pat report. “They do that exercise now to accomplish tasks together.” Games generate creative energy, which fuels fresh thinking about possible approaches and solutions to problems and “make families more responsive to each other and to the world around them.”
Parenting presents daily challenges, the stress of which can be eased by having a toolkit of strategies for how to manage them and, even more important, ways to tap into the creative energy for on-the-spot problem-solving. Mary and Pat see results from helping parents recognize that there are many ways to view a problem and that new perspectives produce novel strategies for dealing with them. “A parent in True Play’s “Math-tery” program saw an immediate improvement when she learned how to change the environment where her kid was doing homework,” they report. “The idea was to help disconnect the act of doing homework from the angsty, negative place where they argued over it.”
Improvisation games are uniquely effective for generating a positive emotional atmosphere, which naturally occurs when an interaction is centered on discovery and exploration and we are given the tools to do it collaboratively. It is a conscious and deliberate choice to learn to say “yes…and” — one of the fundamental skills upon which the creative possibilities of improvisation turns. Collaborative activities can be a powerful teaching tool, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins and Towson University, reported in their article Whose Classroom Is It Anyway? Improvisation As A Teaching Tool. “Research evidence demonstrates that it can promote spontaneity, intuition, interactivity, inductive discovery, attentive listening, nonverbal communication, ad-libbing, role-playing, risk-taking, team building, creativity, and critical thinking.”
“We see improv in our daily lives. We use it every day to make math and reading interactive and fun. Our kids provide a constant reminder for us when we’re going into a negative headspace by saying ‘We’re a family of ‘Yes.’ This gives us the chance to ask ourselves whether we’re saying ‘no’ for a valuable reason (like safety) or not (like convenience). Then, if we need, we can respond by saying ‘so if I’m saying ‘No’ now, it must be really serious. By using ‘and’ — the practice of connecting — we’re frequently able to redirect tantrums before they happen. Plus, there are few things more gratifying than listening to your kids playing and, when one of them isn’t sharing and the other one is getting grumpy — hearing one offer the reminder that ‘yes leads to adventure’ and suddenly they find a new way to play.” Mary Theresa Archbold
Empathy — the emotional “yes” to what another person is feeling and trying to express — is a relationship skill that drives healthy parent-child interactions, and also drives improvisation. “Yes” is the soul of improv. In their relationship at home and work, Mary and Pat strive to make a habit of saying “yes” to others’ thoughts and feelings, “then we add in ‘and.’ It’s easy to hear something from someone and then disconnect from it. By making a habit of connecting with ‘and’, we tell the people around us that we’re in this together.” They also make a point of using the improvisation tool of speaking in statements , rather than questions — e.g. “I see you found those sneakers we thought were lost” instead of “where did you find your sneakers?” or “Phineas & Farb starts in exactly 30 minutes and you can watch it if your room is clean” rather than “Are you going to clean your room like I told you to?” In improv terms, speaking in statements gives a fellow player something specific to which they can respond. In real life situations, framing things in terms of “assertions” rather than challenges or questions is a way of “putting our thoughts forward so that people can respond and feel invited to offer thoughts back.”
“Improv is by nature happy and joyful. We think of joy and laughter as a practice, and not as something that’s found by chance. On a personal note, some years ago, we had to watch our 13 and 8 year old niece and nephew lose their father to cancer. They adopted as a motto, and have been continually buoyed by a note they found after his passing: “a smile will help you go that extra mile.” Not surprisingly, the teen is now on her college improv group.” Mary Theresa Archbold and Pat Shay
True Play workshops include:
True Play Improv — for parents and kids
LAL: Listen, Agree and Laugh for parents only
Math-tery: Improv Mindset for Math (parents only)
Word Play: Improv for Reading (parents only)
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer who is an approved provider of Continuing Education social workers (NYS provider #0270). She is also host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that feature true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds.