Last week an old friend called to see if I could babysit her two twin 5 year old boys. I had been their nanny when they were still in diapers and I jumped at the chance to come see them again and witness how they’ve grown. I usually love children, not because I want any of my own, but because they unleash a part of me that is sometimes hard for me to access. I’ve worked with many children over the years and love their natural ability to be creative, spontaneous, and intuitive. When I am with children, they gently nudge me into the realm of possibility, and I am transformed into a creative and enthusiastic learner. This is the same process that happens when I attend an improv class with other adults who are also exploring what it means to “play”.
Most adults are bridled with responsibilities and commitments, which is often just a natural part of aging. Perhaps it’s no surprise that improv has been a steadily growing trend over the years. Improv often brings people back to a really simple state, where the entire goal is to have fun, much like playing with your friends in childhood. When approaching a situation with a mentality of just having fun, you would be surprised at what can be turned into play. In order to really enjoy the benefits that improv has to offer though, you have to be open to making mistakes and not judging yourself too harshly. This is easier said than done for me, because I am often my harshest critic and pick apart my performance while I’m trying to fall asleep later that night. Play is intrinsically nonjudgmental though, and it often takes practice and courage to let yourself go completely and be in the moment.
The desire to play with others is primitive and not just a human invention. Basic play can be found in many species of animal and has functional and survival aspects. A litter of puppies playing in the yard is practicing communication skills, reinforcing social bonds, and relieving tension and stress. Many of these benefits apply to humans as well, and can be found when someone is in the moment and enjoying themselves. I look forward to coming home from work and playing with my dog. It relaxes me and I am usually laughing at some point by watching my dog enjoy himself. I don’t have kids myself but I can imagine that a similar feeling is had when parents watch siblings get along and have fun.
When I spent the evening with my friend’s twin boys, I observed in them many of the skills I have learned so far in Improv 101. The only difference was that they were constantly running and yelling at the top of their lungs. The boys immediately knew how to react when one of them changed direction, and they were able to work together without skipping a beat. Improv, like playing with children, is a great way to access your imagination, creativity, and sense of fun. George Bernard Shaw summed it up best when he said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”