Shifting, or cognitive flexibility, is one of the key principles of good executive function and one of the cornerstones of the SMARTS program. We define cognitive flexibility as the ability to think flexibly and to shift approaches easily. (For a brief overview, check out our video: Unit 3 – Cognitive Flexibility.)
Teaching students to shift and adopt new strategies and approaches can be challenging. One of the best ways to teach shifting is with theater and improvisation games! Your students will be having so much fun they won’t even realize that you are teaching them executive function strategies.
Below are more of my favorite theater exercises that work well in the classroom:
Word at a Time Proverb
Have your students form a circle. One player starts with the first word of a (non-existing) proverb. Continue around the circle, with each student adding one word at a time until the group “feels” the proverb is done. At that point everybody says, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!”
Tip: Start with typical proverb words, like “A,” “He who,” etc.
I am a Tree
One person starts the scene on stage saying, “I am a tree.” Another person joins them, choosing something or someone to interact with the tree. They might say, “I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch,” and clasp the tree person’s arm. Or maybe they say, “I am the water running beneath the roots of the tree,” and lie down on the floor to wriggle beneath the tree person’s feet. A third person then joins the first two, choosing their own related identity and action such as, “I am the lovers’ carving in the bark on the tree,” while forming a heart on the tree person’s torso.
At that point, the person who started the scene—the tree—chooses one of the others and they both exit the stage (e.g., “I’ll take the lovers’ carving.”). This leaves the third person alone on stage. That person repeats their identity (e.g., “I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch.”). Two more people come on stage, thinking up identities connected to that person. Then the person who was left on stage alone at the beginning of this cycle—the jay in our example—chooses someone to come off stage and the cycle begins again. Repeat as needed.
Story String or String of Pearls
A player gives the first line of a story in a declarative action statement, such as “I climb out the window.” A second player goes to the opposite end of the room and makes a declarative action statement that serves as the last line of the story, such as “I go to sleep.” Players must fill in the rest of the story with declarative action statements, inserting themselves between the first and last line while fleshing out the full story one idea at a time. Each time a “new pearl” enters the chain, everyone in the line repeats their statement in the order in which they are standing. Continue this process until the story is completed. Each new statement should add information that explains what is already in the story while filling in necessary gaps until the story feels complete. The objective is to let the group work together to develop the story, building on each other’s ideas to develop a creative story, even if that means the plot winds up going in a different direction than anticipated.
Last Word Response
This improvisation exercise can be done with two or more participants. The only rule to the game is to respond to someone by starting with the last word they used.
A: I have to go to the gym more often.
B: Often I think about the same thing.
A: Thing is I’m really lazy.
B: Lazy is just an excuse.
A: Excuse me? That’s a bit rude.
This exercise is probably the most difficult one included in this post. Most of the time the conversations will take a weird and funny turn, but that’s fine. The point of this exercise is just to improve your listening ability. You have to work with the last word said, so you have to listen to what is said all the way to the end before you can think of a response. It’s common in our daily conversations to be thinking of a response in our heads before we fully listen to what someone says. This exercise helps prevent that process by forcing you to wait until the person is finished. No matter how strange things get, you’ll be building your students’ facility with listening and language.
Open Your Hand
Let the players walk around the room leisurely. Then ask them to stop, open their hands, and tell them something has fallen right out of the sky and into their hands. Let them name the object in their hands, set it aside, move on, and open their hands again.
If some students are afraid they are not going to be able to name the “object,” be sure to explain that there are no wrong answers.
Some players will complain that everything that falls out of the sky is a dead bird (or whatever). Explain to them that this is fine, too. Most players, when reassured that they really can’t go wrong, move on to other stuff after 10 dead birds or so.
You can tell players to vary the way they extend their hands. They can hold hands in front of them, above their head, or close to the ground. See if different stuff shows up.
A slightly less difficult version of this game can be done by having players put their hands in their pockets and take something out. Make sure they all actually have pockets if you want to play this game! This version is slightly easier, as anything in their pockets, like dust or the way the fabric feels, can trigger an idea.
Everybody playing the game forms a big circle. One player starts the game by making a gesture and a sound to the neighbor on his or her right. The neighbor immediately imitates the gesture and sound, then turns to the neighbor on his or her right and makes a totally different gesture and sound.
You can make the game a bit more challenging by having students pass their sound/gesture to any player in the circle. This version is also known as Pass Catch. You can also try the game without imitating the sound/gesture received; just have players turn around and throw a new gesture/sound to their neighbors as fast as possible.
- Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager