In December 2017, The Sydney Morning Herald published a story about how playful parents can prevent anxious kids. How do parents become more playful? And what does this mean for children and improvisation? Improvisors know very well.
In the last 10 years, research into childhood anxiety has exploded, with recent studies showing that childhood anxiety can become a serious chronic problem that can persist into adulthood. While there are numerous causes of anxiety in children, one area which has been studied is parental behaviour. Studies show that the behaviour of parents does have a role in the development and continuation of childhood anxiety, particularly parents who are controlling, over protective, over involved, or who themselves have issues with anxiety. Think the negative side to helicopter parenting, or strictly guiding a child in a parent’s own image.
The October 2017 study quoted in the story is titled The Structure of Challenging Parenting Behaviour and Associations With Anxiety in Dutch and Australian Children, and has a large number of authors, with 3 of the 10 being from Macquarie University on Sydney’s north shore where we’re based.
They found that challenging parenting behaviour (CPB) can protect children against anxiety triggering behaviours. CPBs are behaviours which introduce and normalise behaviours that children will experience as an adult, in a playful and supportive environment. This includes ”rough and tumble” games, challenging them to step outside their comfort zone, and losing at games or them being negatively affected or challenged by something in play.
Obviously improvisation skills can come into play here. As improvising parents, we’re more likely to actively engage with our children in ways non–improvising parents might not. Even when improvising parents do have anxiety, their improvisation skills should partly decrease some of the negative affects reported in these studies.
Divergent thinking is a popular phrase in applied improvisation — applied improvisation is the use of improvisation in life and business. Divergent thinking is an odd sounding phrase for what it describes, and this may contribute to why it’s always included in descriptions of corporate improvisation workshops.
Divergent thinking is at its simplest, thinking outside the box. Such as brainstorming — in the sense of documenting ideas via a stream of consciousness — pattern finding and following, mind mapping — again in the sense of an actual mind map — or playing role playing or open ended board games. The opposite of divergent thinking is convergent thinking, which is solving problems following discreet steps, by memory or without consideration for other paths or procedures.
We know divergent thinking is good for creativity, problem solving and as a general way to approach life. We also know that improvisors are masters of divergent thinking. But what about children? Aren’t they naturally divergent thinkers until the real world beats it out of them as they become adults?
A 2015 paper titled Improvisation Facilitates Divergent Thinking and Creativity: Realizing a Benefit of Primary School Arts Education looked at whether general improvisation skills would improve creativity and divergent thinking in children. Earlier studies have shown that divergent thinking activities such as dance and acting do improve creativity, but what about improvisation specifically? The result was that yes they do, improvisation skills improve creativity and divergent thinking beyond standard performing arts classes.
The authors ran two experiments. The first tested the impact of taking an improvised vs. non-improvised dance class, and the second tested at the impact of acting and vocal improvisation games vs. other non-improvisation games. Previous experiments have shown that dance classes do improve creativity and divergent thinking, but this study found that improvised dance classes were even more beneficial. And with the theatre games experiment, previous studies have shown that creative drama classes can improve creativity and divergent thinking — which would be concerning if they didn’t, considering they are called “creative” classes. But this study showed that improvised theatre games have an even bigger effect on creativity and divergent thinking.
All of this just backs up what us improvisors already know, that children who improvise and who have parents who improvise, are more creative, are better at divergent thinking, are more confident, have a wider range of friends, and do well in creative domains including art, music and theatre. And they typically end up being more rounded, more grounded, more caring and are just generally nicer people.
We think improvisation should be a mandatory part of every school curriculum, and in fact it should be completely integrated into how children are actually taught. It should also be part of the mandatory “certified to have children test” that most new parents joke about when they see bad parenting. And while we’re at it, let’s make it something that all adults should be doing as well.