Gamechanger: Using Improv Games For Therapeutic Goals — Workshop Handout

10 min readFeb 23, 2017


This workshop was designed and facilitated by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Carl Jung

Applied Improvisation games are a form of brain training and social-emotional skill development that are increasingly used in training, therapy and classrooms. “Improv enthusiasts rave about its educational value,” writes Linda Flanagan in “How Improv Can Open Up The Mind In The Classroom and Beyond” on Mindshift. According to Deana Criess, Teacher of Applied Improv for Career Launch @ Perkins, a job training program for adults at Perkins School for the Blind who is quoted in the article, improvisation “not only hones communication and public speaking skills, it also stimulates fast thinking and engagement with ideas. On a deeper level, improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking — that internal editor who crosses out every word before it appears on a page — and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses. Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others.”

Improv games are designed to promote enough psychological safety that participants may take emotional and creative risks with one another and examine concepts and ideas together. When everyone involved follows these principles, the group naturally enters a “state of play” which opens up the freedom to try new things, explore ideas and take creative risks. The “state of play” is the ideal mental and emotional state for exploring therapeutic goals and possibilities for how to move toward them.

Use games in therapeutic situations or classes to:

Increase the sense of group connection and produce cohesion rapidly;

Provide structure that shows clear pathways for how to connect and interact with others;

Connect and communicate through a set of agreements and rules;

Produce tension with low stakes that generates creative choice;

Teach content through live exploration and interaction;

Games provide 4 keys essential to human happiness:

Skills, tasks or “work” that can be learned and improved, which offer increasing levels of challenge and rewards for meeting those challenges;

The experience — or at least the hope — of being successful in large and small ways; at first the success is learning the skill, then applying it and taking it into more complex applications within the context of the game;

Social connections — games are structured, captivating ways to engage with others;

Meaning or purpose — the activity is linked to a collaborative spirit among people, or accomplishing a goal. In improvisation the higher meaning or purpose can be the well-being of one’s partners who are equally at risk and vulnerable while improvising, making the success of the relationship the focus of our efforts. Or it can mean surrendering our own ideas about how an interaction or scene should be, or using improvisation to communicate and explore larger, important ideas.

“The use of games and play to achieve real-world goals should aim to empower human beings, helping them achieve their life goals more often and with less difficulty. Adding elements of fun and challenge to the execution of real life tasks does not mean that their seriousness will be diminished; it simply lends them a higher degree of enjoyability.” “The Use Of Games and Play To Achieve Real-World Goals”

Radical acceptance and relentless positivity drive the improvised interaction. “The ripple effect: emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior,” published in Administrative Quarterly in 2002 describes research showing that when group members experience positive emotional contagion, there was improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance. Groups in which positive emotions and mood were spread displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict and reported feeling better about their performance on tasks than groups in which negative emotions were spread. And, groups in which people felt positive emotions actually made more fair and equitable decisions than groups which were impacted by negative emotional states.”




  • Get out of analytic mind;
  • Redirect focus to produce a state of play in the group;
  • Reduce focus on “getting it right” when doing something new and unfamiliar;

Participants stand in a circle. Three statements are put into play with the following structure. Pass the statement “Misty Vistas” to the person on the right. Pass the statement “Whiskey Mixers” to the person on the left. Anyone who breaks up laughing when doing this tongue-twisting exercise has to run around the outside of the circle, then return to the circle and continue with the play, which continue to move from person to person. After a few rounds, add “Whiskered Kittens” to be passed to a person across the circle.



  • Demonstrate radical acceptance
  • Experience radical acceptance
  • “Break set” mentally
  • Enter into the state of play in which many possibilities exist

Round 1: Participants stand in a circle. A category is suggested from the group. Player 1 has to name 3 things in this category, e.g. “fruit.” After the first one the group yells “1!” very enthusiastically, after the 2nd one they yell “2!” and after the third “3!” Then big applause. A new category is chosen for the next player and the group does the same. A new category is named for each player.

Round 2: A category is suggested by the group for the first player. Player 1 then “acts out” something within that category and the next player in the circle names it. Absolutely anything the person acting out does is great, and whatever label it is given is accepted. The group calls out “1, 2, 3!” as in the first round. The idea is to let go of old ideas about “getting it right” or worrying about content. Its about radical acceptance and unconditional support.

Round 3: A suggestion of “something that doesn’t exist” from the group and the facilitator guides the group to make the category a little more complex, e.g. “movies starring Robert de Niro” “books by Stephen King” or “talk shows.” A player “acts out” a title and the next player makes up the thing that doesn’t exist as if that’s what is being acted out. After each one the group calls out “1, 2 3!” with great enthusiasm.

Debrief: Radical acceptance from a group combined with a creative challenge in which any response is correct is an entirely different way to interact with other people than what we usually encounter. Doing an activity like this is a way to examine what it feels like to connect with others in this way and what is it like to play with ideas and receive unconditional support. The emphasis on fun and positivity creates a new rule for engaging with others and reduces the tendency to overthink when doing creative activities.



Encourage a positive atmosphere among people in the group;

Focus thinking on ways to compliment and praise others;

Focus on the impact that compliments and praise of others has on the individual and the group dynamic;

Demonstrate how positive thoughts influence group collaboration;

The game is simply to go around the circle and single out each individual player one by one. A timer is set for 30 seconds and within that time the group is shout as many compliments as they can think of about that person. The idea is to get as many compliments into 30 seconds as possible. The compliments and praise can be anything from superficial to deeply sincere.

RESEARCH: “To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We’ve been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise. There seems to be scientific validity behind the message ‘praise to encourage improvement’. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation.” “Social Reward Enhance Offline Improvements In Motor Skill” PLOS One

“Praise taps into the same reinforcement system that enables cheese to help rats through a maze.” Matt Lieberman, Phd, researcher, in Social:Why Our Brain Are Wired To Connect

TEDx talk: “The Social Brain And Its SuperPowers,” Matt Lieberman, Phd



Practice thinking on one’s feet, acceptance of what is offered and working with it;

Develop skills in collaboration;

Practice thinking in new ways about obstacles, problems and the possibilities of collaboration;

Players stand in a circle. Player turns to the right and tells the next player “I’m finally going after my big dream of ______________ (learning to speak a foreign language, e.g.) The next player must add a line that uses the “big dream” as a basis for an obstacle, saying “Well you can’t do that because _______ (learning foreign languages has been banned by the government). The 3rd line is a response to the obstacle that ideally transforms the obstacle into something useful, although that is not necessary, saying “Well its a good thing I have __________ (e.g. a special membership with the ACLU and they are fighting that ban!)” Play goes around the circle in this way so that everyone has the chance to be the initiator with the big dream and the one who introduces the obstacle.

Debrief: What was it like to come up with big dreams and not hold back or try to be too logical? What was it like to come up with an obstacle? What was challenging about it, and what helped? Did the 3-line scene feel like a collaboration? What does this exercise demonstrate about the possibilities between people who listen and respond to one another?



Enhance adaptability and practice of close listening and shifting gears;

Practice a creative process from beginning to end without editing;

Collaborate with a team toward a higher purpose (completing the task);

Practice “make your partner look good” and explore what that means;

Heighten awareness of how it feels to initiate and how it feels to have no control over when you will be called upon to pick up the thread;

Teams of 4 are created. Another group member agrees to be the “change-maker.” A suggestion of a topic is taken from the group. One of the team members begins a monologue on the topic, just freely improvising on the topic without editing. At some point the “change-maker” calls “change” at which point the person who is speaking stops and the next person (going clockwise) picks up the thread of the monologue and continues. Every time the “change-maker” calls “change” the next team member takes over. The monologue is a collaboration that develops by each player building on what came before.

Round 2 — the same structure but this time the team members decide when they are going to pick up the story, at which point they “tag out” the person who is speaking. The idea is to help the story move forward, to use the ideas that others have already put into it and initiate whenever it seems like another player is running out of steam.



Explore a position or idea from more than 1 perspective;

Learn a structure for effectively stating and supporting an idea;

Think on one’s feet and engage with the creative process;

A song structure is described and used to create solo monologues:

Chorus — a repeated phrase that is the foundation of the song, the main idea

Verses — stories or material that support the main idea in the chorus

Bridge — the “on the other hand” point of view about the main idea

A physical position for each part of the song structure is established on the stage or in the room. A suggestion for a topic is given by the group, e.g. “Italian food.” A player stands in the CHORUS position and makes a thesis statement about the topic, e.g. “Pizza is the best Italian food ever invented.” Then the player moves to the position for VERSES and improvises an argument for that position, e.g. “Pizza has everything — carbs, vegetables and dairy. It can be the foundation for all sort of different styles and toppings…” and after completing a thought moves to the CHORUS position and repeats the thesis statement. Then another verse, followed by another CHORUS. Then the player moves to the BRIDGE position and takes a slightly or very different position, e.g. “on the other hand, pizza is really just a fast food, its not very nutritious. It isn’t as creative and exotic as lasagne or all the different kinds of pasta, etc” ending with, “but who am I kidding, pizza is the best Italian food ever invented” (repeat the thesis statement).



Explore the impact of status on the way we behave and react to others in a group;

Explore different perceptions of status and how it is expressed;

Using a deck of playing cards, and identifying that Aces are low and Kings are the highest, randomly hand out a card to each player. Each player knows what card he/she has, and plays that status in a conversation in the group based on a suggestion by the facilitator. It could be a discussion of the events in the group leading up to this exercise or any other topic. As the conversation continues, players react to one another based on the perception of status others are expressing and the status he/she is playing. After the conversation seems complete, have players line up from high to low across the room according to where they see themselves in relationship to others, and then reveal the cards.

Debrief: How did your perception of your status in relation to others match up with others’ perception? How were you impacted by the status you were given — how did your status impact your physical, vocal and emotional expression? How does this relate to real life situations?

RESOURCES: Listen to Improv Nerd, a podcast by Chicago improviser and teacher Jimmy Carrane, for lots of great conversations about improv as an art form that leans into the ways that improvisation experiences and training strengthen skills associated with social-emotional development over the lifespan, self-awareness, communication and other interpersonal skills.

Read: “Improv Is A Safe Space: Laughs Help Treat Mental Health Issues”

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages.




LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs