GII2019 – Open Space Session on Improvising with family and children

Participants: Catherine Ryan, Paul Wildman, ‘Tosin Akinwande, Derek Flores, Nathan Keates, Josh Darcy, Christian Freisieben.

Paul - Coming here to see how impro can be used with young people both as family and as teacher. Shift in paradigm of families. Children historically shut down – seen and not heard – damage and impacts. Can see in his teaching different impacts of upbringings on behaviours. Want to make sure we understand boundaries and have freedom within them. I don’t want my children to feel that they aren’t listened to.

Catherine – wants to acknowledge that there are many different versions and ways of being and experiencing family. Different cultural ways of family, different personal ways of family.

Derek and Michi – are wanting to do impro classes with families eg a word at a time. How do you manage it? We haven’t done this yet but are hoping and planning to, but so far I’m interested in doing it with my own son. The one impro skill I’ve taught him – “whatever happens we will roll with it”.

Tosin – with Playback Theatre Nigeria, we worked with internally displaced children in Nigeria, having been invited by UNICEF. We were using impro to work with children, to make the work of improving their social and education situations look and feel like play. Always in a fun manner – this is how to work with children. In Nigeria, childhood is full of play and freedom. In their work, they always start and close with games – and over time we have more children coming, even if its just for the games. Games encourage communication with children. Even if they didn’t learn the academic things – they learnt social, emotional things. The Playback improvisors/leaders then also trained up local adults to continue working with the children. These ongoing leaders report that the children more interactive, and getting back to school.

Derek – were there particular games they liked more?

‘Tosin - they like the illustration games, more than the verbal ones. We wanted to make them feel like children playing, rather than at school being talked to.

Derek - brought up the question of the romanticism of children’s play. Are they really natural or the best improvisors? But 9 out of 10 times they are punching and saying no. They actually aren’t the best improvisers. We see them do parallel play, but do they build improvisationally together? They still want their own way. Can kids improvise? Is there always an Alpha Child in play?

Paul - Kids are taught to behave in certain ways and they can definitely learn to improvise.

BIG question - Is improvisation learnt or innate?

Catherine - What is behind the kids’ “yes” and “no”? Maybe when they say “no”, it might look like blocking from the outside, and therefore “not” improvisational, but maybe this is their child way of saying “yes” to their own internal experiences and feelings. Could we adults be thinking about how to find out where the yes and no might be for the child, and then respond to those? ‘Tosin and cath agree that kids ‘No’ is a “Yes” to their own internal experience – eg “No”, refusing to go to bed is another way of saying “I really want to keep spending time with Mum, or watching TV or…”.

(As I think about this afterwards while tidying up these notes, I go back to thinking about the importance of non-verbal communication here, of tuning into, and responding to the children’s physical offers (eg sitting in front of the TV) and giving them as much, if not more focus than the verbal ones - CR)

Discussion moved to the group’s experiences with working with different age groups of children:
10-13 year olds is a difficult age for teaching improv. Many kids want to show off.
11-12 year olds can start to understand and listen to each other better.
10 yo old “Good broadcasters, not good listeners.”
6-9 year olds ‘Tosin finds them willingly taking it on.
9-12 – 20 mins is a good period of time for work
13 year olds - not listening so much, hormones kicking in, twitching.

Paul - Starts with throw, catch, receiving games. In a gradual immersion. Impro doesn’t work with all children but does seem to calm many of them down, he sees them behaving better in the classroom at school, and sees them being able to empathise better.

Derek asks - Do you have to take the parents in and do workshops with the parents? So the child will have that learning around them all the time - Maybe parents can bring their impro training into the home?

‘Tosin – finds learning through games, songs more effective than conventional talking academic type lessons.

Paul - Building relationships is very important. We have this modern problem of not playing with kids enough. As carers/adults/teachers can we engage in even small moments of play amidst everyday life – living with a playful spirit with the children in our lives eg Stopping a household chore to respond to a child who is making a playful offer.

How can impro show kids that their parents listen? – important.

Derek/Paul - Problem in the West with not letting kids (and everyone) being bored. No space for just being.

‘Tosin – in Nigeria kids are left to do their own things. Adults are busy working, earning money so children are always with other kids. play with other children Sometimes too much freedom. The Child belongs to the community (not just nuclear family), they just come home when parents get home. No ready access to internet. Children just play play play, but maybe they also lose focus.
D/P/C – reflect how it used to be like this in their childhoods, but things have changed in the last generation.

T – In Nigeria, adults generally are not interested in playing with children, just thinking about money. But, in the UNICEF project they had lots of adult volunteers interested.

Paul – In response to a question about how his school responded to him bringing impro into his teaching and working methods – he said that he needs to frame impro as an activity of “independent research” because lots of people are turned off by the term “impro”. Tried open space in staff training. Has taken 3 years, in baby steps. Open space response good, and using impro in training for teachers. Only in the last 12 months has he been able to tell the group that what you are doing is improvisation. Gradually getting there. It’s important for mental health for everyone. Changing a culture got to happen over a period of time.

What about games/exercises for both kids and adults?

Paul tries to do playful activities rather than games. “What you are doing also has value”.
What did you do? – gentle immersion

Maybe play 3 games – then ask and debrief… and listen to the learning that might emerge from that. Too much talking/reflection can turn people off, but people can also feel that just playing games doesn’t have any value or purpose.

P - Teach a game to learn the social, personal lesson. He reminds us of remembering the disengaged deadening feeling that sitting thru a powerpoint lecture can evoke.

D - Bring the family to play together. Take the status away from the adult and give it to the kids. Kids can be asked “What comes next?” and the adult has to follow them, looking as foolish as possible, but listening and responding to the kid. If adults can do this with dignity and joy of failure, then maybe we can find the points where power issues can be opened up, and more freedom, fun and connection can be found.

T /D – thinks kids will enjoy role reversal more than adults. This is also a good way of empathy building. Reverse roles on scenes eg bedtime. So that parents can feel what its like to be a kid bossed around, and kids can feel what it’s like to maybe be an adult frustrated at not being listened to.

P – Let’s remember just how long emotions, and emotional memory can stay with us. And impro is intrinsically funny, and that makes you feel good.

West is in a time of post-nuclear family – community can be family, like in Nigeria.

T- if adults were to be invited into a kids impro/games group in Nigeria, the kids would resist. You would need to bring in one new adult at a time, slowly slowly.

P – has been interested and working on impro for 25 years.

C – mentions that there is a bit of research out there from teachers working improvisationally in classrooms that could be useful models to consider…

T – worked with 2 adults in a group of 12 kids in the UNICEF project. If parents were to be involved, I would recommend introducing them one at a time over a number of weeks.

New discussion member Nathan arrives and suggests content can be an issue in groups of mixed ages. What is the goal? Kids just enjoy playing about in games.

2 other people join in, Josh Darcy, and Christian and share about how using improv skills at home can be difficult, and how sometimes using our “working” skills can be hard to translate into our own personal lives. Sometimes we need someone else to bring these things to our awarenesses.

Improv Wisdom – Patricia Madsen recommended by Christian F. Freisieben