Improvisational Theatre May Help Improve Self Concept

by Thalia R. Goldstein and Brooke DeBettignies

Improvisation (“Improv”) theatre has been made famous by Saturday Night Live, books by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Whose Line is it Anyway, and many others. Improv is often pointed to as a way for groups of people to bond, to increase confidence, and to have some fun. But what about for kids?  Could improv help children’s social development in some way?

In a recent study to be published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, this is just the question that my thesis student, Brooke DeBettignies and I took on. We wanted to know if taking a semester of improvisational theatre classes could help children ages 8-11 improve their self-concept. And we wanted to do it in a scientifically rigorous way. But first, a few larger definitions:

1. What is improv?

Improv is acting without a script. There are many subforms of improv, but for the most part, it involves taking suggestions from an audience or from the actors, and working collaboratively in a group to spontaneously create a performance. Theatre teachers and writers hypothesize that improv requires focus, intuition, spontaneity, physicalizing, and creative problem solving (Spolin, 1963). Improv can be long (e.g. creating a 20 minute play from just a few key words), or short (e.g. making up a 1 minute response to a question posed by the audience).

2. What is self-concept?

Self-concept is how we think about ourselves and our abilities. Are we good at math? Do we belong on a baseball team? How are we with our friends? Positive (accurate) self-concept is associated with higher levels of psychological wellbeing and successful functioning while low self-concept is associated with psychological distress (Craven & Marsh, 2008). Self-concept and self-esteem are often used interchangeably, but self-concept is typically the term used within the arts. While there are controversies about the conceptualization and measurement of self-concept (for example, it may change from day to day, and therefore one point of measurement may not give an accurate representation), many educational programs and schools, therefore, want to help children with their self-concept.

3. What is it about improv that might improve self-concept?

Generally, theatre education in various forms has been hypothesized to improve self-concept through self expression and exploration, but improv as a specific form of theatre hasn’t been previously studied. Often studies include theatre that has a component of improv as part of a warm up or as one of many theatrical activities in a class, but a unique focus on improv as an intervention may have specific outcomes. Improv has foundational guiding principles, each of which can be linked to psychological skills or constructs that may increase self-concept. Below, we list each of these foundational guiding principles, and how each one may be linked to self-concept or other social-emotional skills.

  1. Work in agreement– always say “Yes, and!” when given a prompt by other people. This encourages students to think about what they can add, how they can create team work with others around them, and how others can take what they give and add more to it.
  2. Give “gifts” – Add information that can be helpful to others. This prompts students to think about how they can help others achieve their goals in the game, and how others can help them. It encourages them to think about how their impulses and ideas can form the bases for others’ gains too.
  3. Avoid questions – Don’t just ask other people questions that they have to creatively answer. This gets kids to think about how they can be additive to a scene, and how they can contribute.
  4. Be present – Maintain focus and eye contact. This gets kids to think in the moment, to really pay attention, with the emphasis on needing the attention to the moment to be able to think fast and respond appropriately.
  5. Enable spontaneity – Use intuition and instinct to think on your feet and respond appropriately. Trust yourself and where you want to go with a scene, and follow along with your self-trust.
  6. Build trust – There are many right answers in improv, many “correct” ways a scene could go. Students are encouraged to know that their team mates have their back in a scene, and that they have nonjudgmental support for their team mates.
  7. Emphasize collaboration – The success of an improv scene is based on the group, not any individual. So individual students can try different ideas and work with others to create together, sharing leadership and working on making each other look good.
  8. Hone relevant skills – Students are encouraged to think about all the pieces that go into a successful improv, including voice and body work, and narrative understanding.
  9. Be an ‘expert’ – Improvisers need to pretend to be experts on whatever topic an audience member gives them to discuss! They need to learn how to “fake it” and play with their knowledge at the level it exists.
  10. Commit wholeheartedly– Finally, students are encouraged to fully commit to any scene, any set of conditions, and any group of which that they were a part. Taking it to the end and empower themselves to fully immerse into a scene.

This set of basic improv principles shares many qualities with having a positive self concept: self trust, thinking about others and the self in relationship, being present, building trust with others, committing to your own actions, etc.

The study

From these theories and foundations, we conducted a study to see if improv could change self concept for children. We worked with 52 children over an entire school year.  Children were between the ages of 8-11 years old and were enrolled in an after-school program at their local elementary school in a big city. We randomly divided the group of children into two groups. None of the children, as far as we knew, had ever taken theatre classes before.

Half of the children started the year with a semester of improv classes, and half of the children started the year with a study hall period.  Then, at the midpoint of the year (right after the winter break) we switched the groups. The kids who had previously gotten improv class were now in study hall, and the kids who had previously gotten study hall now got to take improv.

This meant we could measure kids’ self-concept scores at three times, in three different ways:

  • Before taking any improv
  • After a semester of either improv or study hall
  • After another semester, of either improv for the first time, or study hall, having already gone through improv classes.

In this way, we could look not only at the immediate effects of improv classes (compared to study hall), but also whether the improv classes had any sort of longer lasting effects (after they had taken a semester off).

The results

At the beginning of the year, before anyone had taken improv, unfortunately, the groups were uneven. (This sometimes happens, even with randomly assigning kids to groups with the best of intentions).  So, we made sure to control for those scores in all of the follow up analysis.

After one semester, the group taking improv, who had started significantly lower, caught up with the group from study hall. (The study hall group didn’t change, and we weren’t expecting them to). Then, the groups switched what they were doing.  The second group now took improv, and the first group moved to study hall. At the end of the year, the group that had begun lower, done improv and caught up, and then taken study hall, maintained that gain even without more improv. But the group that started higher, took study hall and then moved to improv didn’t increase above where they had started.

So what does this tell us?  It tells us that for kids who have lower levels of self concept, improv may be a valuable tool to increase their self concept, and a tool that can last beyond when kids are actively involved. For kids with higher levels of self concept, improv may not bump them up any higher, but it may have had positive effects that we didn’t measure. (And it didn’t make them go down).

What’s next?

This study was a nice first step in thinking about the links between improv classes and self concept in this age group. As our sample size was relatively small (only 52 kids), we would like to do the study again, with a different, larger group of kids.  We also only had 1 improv teacher. Improv is necessarily affected by both the teacher and the group of kids. With another teacher, the classes would run slightly different, and a different group of kids may also affect that. So, repeating the study in a new location, with new kids and teachers, would also show us the strength of the findings.

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