New York Improv Theater: Five SEL Classroom Games, how to play

New York Improv Theater regularly drops by schools in the tri-state area to deliver SEL (Social emotional learning) via school assemblies, workshops, residencies and Professional Development for Teachers. Here are five games we like to play in a typical one off workshop, or first day of a residency. We encourage all teachers to play these games long after we have left to continue building self confidence, public speaking skills, creativity and critical thinking and build strong community leaders in your student population.

Five Improv Games for the Classroom

11/23/21 Walt Frasier hosts a third show at Dyker Heights Brooklyn NY school.The team of artists is spending three days at the school this month offering shows and classes to the entire intermediate school.

1. Stop Walk

We often start with this game. STOP WALK teaches listening, self awareness, and working as a team.

We start every workshop briefly discussing the basic concepts in Improvisation.

  • Our #1 rule: Have Fun, but never at another’s expense.
  • Improv #1 Rule: YES! And…
  • #1 skill in Comedy, Life: Listening

This games starts by having students follow two simple commands.

  • STOP is defined as standing in the actor’s neutral. Straight up, energized, but not stiff. Arms at the side.
  • WALK is defined as an energized but controlled walk.

When teacher says WALK, students walk around the room. One may not touch another person or object. Make eye contact. Be aware of ones surrounding space so as not to injure self or other.

Alternate these two commands a few times.

As Walt Frasier says, OK WAY TOO EASY…

No add two commands.

  • When teacher says CLAP you will clap one time. CLAP
  • When teacher say HOP you will hop one time. HOP

No the teacher can call all four commands in random order. Play with rhythm. Test how well folks are listening.

VARIATION: Let’s Dance

There are infinate possiblities. But you can add number of movements, sounds etc. Walt Frasier likes to add two some “dance”moves, like FLOSS and DAB.

VARIATION: Opposite Day

As walter says, STILL TOO EASY! It’s no Opposite Day (oh nos and groans ensue). Now WALK equals stop. STOP equals walk.

Eventually have all couplets of commands reverse each other.

2. The Mask Game

This game teaches pantomime, performing emotions, dealing with emotuons in real life, and even a little theater history.

When Walt Frasier plays this game, he starts with a little history behind masks and performing emotions as actors. The ancient Greeks used masks to depict characters, believing acting out real emotions on stage lead to illness, perhaps even mm mortal ends due to demon possession etc Just a couple hundred years back, while Los ok g the physical masks actors would put on facial expressions, not feeling real emotions for similar reasons.

Playing the mask game, we imagine there is a heavy clay mask sitting in front of us on the desk/table. When directed, we pick up the mask, lift up to our face, then act out that emotion.

This is a great time to introduce pantomime. Imagine the mask is real. Feel it’s weight, it’s texture, it’s size. Feel it hit you face. Then peel it off to end the exercise.

We always start with the happy masks. Breathe in HAPPY. Smile, giggle, enjoy the moment. When time permits you can discuss how that feels. How do we breathe? How do we move? How do we feel?

Ok, take that off and push to the side.

You can play this with infinite emotions. In a quick workshop we focus on happy, sad and angry.

Instruct students to take caution on heavier, more intense emotions. Perform them for the teacher, not each other so as not to seem sending negative vibes to each other.

After SAD and ANGRY masks, let go of the emotion before moving to next game. Take a few cleansing breaths. Tense and release chest, arms and shoulders as you inhale, release all with exhale.

3. I Am A Tree

In language arts, as we study books and plays, we learn about CHARACTER and SETTING in the first chapter /scene of a story. As Improvisational Players (we call performers PLAYERS, because we are always at play in a game) we have to make choices about CHARACTER and SETTING at the begining of every scene. In improv we call this WHO and WHERE.

More important than individual characters are the relationships. Naming the relationship in a scene gets the players and audience on the same page. Similarly naming the location and dealing with that reality, using stage as a 3d canvas to create a world, anchors the improvisation.

This is a simple game to demonstrate establishing WHO/WHERE connections.

First players takes center stage, strikes a pose and exclaims. I AM A TREE.

Other players, one at a time, follow suite.

I AM THE (noun) THAT (how do you connect.) Example


Once every player is in, the first names a character to stay for next round. All other players return to the back line. Repeat 2-3 times.

4. Conducted Story

Let’s create a full story time. In addition to WHO and WHERE we will now include WHAT, aka The Plot, or Action. As the story unfolds continue to bring back the characters and reference the setting.

Line up shoulder to shoulder facing the audience. The teacher / MC will point at one player at a time. When you are pointed to, start talking. The second the MC moves their hand away, stop. This could happen mod sentence, sometimes mid word.

5. Freeze Tag

Lets continue story telling, but now we will engage in scene work.

Line up shoulder to shoulder facing the audience. Two players start a scene. The teacher/MC or next player will yell FREEZE. The scene pauses and becomes a set of human statues. New player taps out either statue, assume the exact physical position them start a new scene, with new WHO WHERE WHAT choices, impaired by the physical position.

As you perform improv comedy, don’t try to be funny. Don’t try to think of words to say. Simply listen, visualize and make some WHO WHERE WHAT choices.

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