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Yes, and … Clean Your Room

In parenting, the beautiful oops is often your child’s. My preschool son rather hilariously mispronounces the name of one of his friends as “potato,” so of course the whole family does now. But parents have “beautiful oops” moments, too. Imagine spilling a cup of coffee, said Keren Gudeman, the founder of Improv Parenting in Minneapolis. Most of us respond by cursing or getting annoyed, but she tries to control her response, either by trying “to somehow make it funny and fun.” By making a game or joke of it — blaming angry ghosts for clumsy accidents — you can demonstrate resilience and self-forgiveness. “Modeling for your kids like that is so powerful, because they do see us as infallible,” she said. When “we acknowledge mistakes as part of being human, what a beautiful lesson.”

Improv games can be a wonderful time-killer, whether you’re on a long car trip, stuck indoors on a snow day, or just on month 11 of a seemingly endless pandemic.

“If you want your children to grow up to be critical thinkers and have a mind of their own, you need to give them opportunities to be free,” said Aretha Sills, an improv teacher and associate director of Sills/Spolin Theater Works, based in Los Angeles. Her father co-founded The Second City, the Chicago improv theater and school whose alumni include Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert.

Your options for improv games are limitless. Burns recommended one called “Circle Morph” (or “Throw Your Face” or “Pass the Emotion”), which is like the game of telephone but for facial expressions. You make a face at the person to your right, and that person tries to re-create it for the person on their right, and on it goes until it’s full circle. If it’s just you and your child, you can do “Alphabet” — a game where you take turns saying sentences that start with subsequent letters of the alphabet. (“Abby the Aardvark is interested in an adventure!” “Boy, that sounds like fun!” “Can we bring llamas?” “Darn right we can.”)

These games come in handy as a bit of pattern disruption — when your child is upset or stalling or, yes, bored. Not long after playing robot with my daughter, my son picked up on the game with a ridiculous 3-year-old version of a sci-fi cyborg voice. Kids are natural improvisers, and he quickly “Yes, and”-ed himself into a dancing robot, a cleaning robot, and then a sister-chasing robot. He continued the game at bedtime until we pressed his shirt gently, pretending to have found his power button. And … scene.


Paul L. Underwood is writes frequently on health and culture for national publications. He’s the father to two young children in Austin, Texas.

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