Confidence is just one of the benefits of improv for young people

We think the Canadian Improv Games are great and so does Sandra Oh!

We think the Canadian Improv Games are great and so does Sandra Oh!

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This past weekend, Sandra Oh posted a video, where she thanked the Canadian Improv Games, her high school drama teachers and everyone she performed improv with in her youth, before hosting Saturday Night Live (showing off some more Canadian pride in a CBC logo shirt, natch).


This week CBC is sponsoring the finals of the 42nd annual Canadian Improv Games (read all about them at CBC Comedy), bringing together 250 high schools and 5,000 students nationwide for the love of the art. While it's a natural place to start for budding actors and comedians, all children and teens can reap positive and productive benefits from improv, whether they're theatrically inclined or not.

Here's are some of the psychological and social benefits of improv for your kids and how they (and you) can start trying it out.

Building confidence

Andrew Phung, who plays Kimchee on Kim's Convenience and is hosting an upcoming documentary about the Games (available to stream now on CBC Gem), started taking improv at an early age. He recalls the the boost it gave him: "I was an awkward teenage kid who didn't really know how to fit in or speak up. Improv helped me figure out who I was, which in turn gave me the confidence to speak up, perform, and just talk to people around me." Phung says participating in improv not only helped him build his sense of self, but also generated a better sense of belonging.

"Where do you go when you're a teenager? I wasn't good at sports, and I wasn't really into anything academically. But once improv became a thing, it was weekly goal."

Honing social skills

A lot of improvisation focuses on exploring mock social situations — an exercise that can have great practical use. "I often recommend improv for children who are having social issues", says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based child and family therapist. "Improv really helps children with timing, learning the fine line between what's funny and what's too silly or what's funny and what's mean, but learning about it in a safe, nonjudgmental environment."

Kolari explains that in some forms of therapy, like social skills groups, children are aware that the exercises are problem-based. "In improv," she says, "kids can just have fun and learn similar important skills without it being focused on their deficits."

She adds that putting students directly into scenarios with other students helps establish social boundaries. "Knowing when to jump in at the right moment and when you've had enough time in the limelight, when it's time to let someone else shine. These are really important social skills on the playground, and in any conversation. It helps kids with the pragmatics of conversation and improves social health."

A productive outlet

All kids have energy to burn, and the world of improv provides a constructive environment to do so. "I have a number of kids I work with who get in trouble for calling out or being impulsive or too silly in class," Kolari says. "They also get defensive and upset when they are corrected. Improv has been a fantastic, safe space for them to learn the very same skills, but feel rewarded and empowered. In this unique setting, they experience the benefits of positive attention from their peers."

Learning through play

"Improv, has been, and always will be, my happy place", says Phung. Kolari believes that play is the natural and most powerful way that children learn. "We coach parents to use humor and play therapy to address more serious issues with their kids." The play of improv can be the proverbial "sugar" that helps the medicine go down, when encountering the speedbumps of youth.

Problem solving

Whether through scenes or games, improvisers can quickly find themselves in sticky situations that they must think a way out of on their feet — a skill that will help them into adulthood. Phung notes how improv helped him adapt to new situations. "Each scene is different. You look at the scenario, your partner, and you react," he explains. "The real world isn't so different. You're put into new situations, with different people, and you figure it out. Improv has helped me excel at that. As a person, I always look for solutions and positives, something improv taught me how to do."

A sense of community

Even though Phung's schedule is much more hectic now, balancing filming various roles and appearances with young fatherhood, he still makes time for improv shows whenever and wherever he can, in addition to helping the next generation of improvisers. "As I've gotten older", says Phung, "I've spent more and more time giving back to improvisation through teaching and supporting youth. The generation before me did it, and I owe it to the art form to do the same. I love seeing improvisers and performers find their passion, and I'm happy to help however I can."

So what's his advice for younger improvisers? "Improv should always be fun. Yes, it can be awkward, and yes, learning new skills can be hard. But when it's fun for you, it's fun for the audience. If you're trying too hard, or frustrated, the audience and your partners will see it. Keep it simple, keep it silly, and make big mistakes on stage!"

How to get started in Canada

If your child is looking to get into improv, the Canadian Improv Games has a list of nationwide programs and summer camps as well as an online training resource.

But if they want to get started right now, Second City alum and improv instructor Nug Nahrgang has shared with us a few games and exercises you can play with them:

"One Word At A Time"

(2 or more players)

  • After establishing a basic premise (eg. going to the mall), players take turns telling that story in the same first person voice, but only speaking one word at a time.
  • The object is to use listening and quick reactions to minimize pausing and create a fluid, coherent story.
  • Encourage telling an active story and large physical gestures to clearly communicate

"Story Conductor"

(3 or more players)

  • One player is the conductor while the others are storytellers.
  • After deciding on a premise, the storytellers begin telling the story in the first person, but can only speak when the conductor is pointing at them.
  • The storytellers must continue speaking as long as the conductor is pointing at them and can only stop when the conductor points at someone else.
  • The conductor can increase the difficulty by randomly changing the lengths and patterns of their pointing.
  • For a harder version, if a storyteller pauses too long or makes no sense, they are eliminated from the game.

"Yes, and…"

(2 or more players)

  • After deciding on a premise for a scene (eg. ordering at a deli), the players begin the scene.
  • After the first sentence spoken (eg. "Do you have tomato soup?") each player must begin speaking by saying "Yes, and…", agreeing to what was proposed and adding to it (eg. "Yes, and would you like some bread with that?" "Yes, and I would like the whole loaf.")
  • Objective is to accept ideas, incorporate them and cooperate in building the scene

Has improv helped you or your children? What's your favourite improv game? "Yes, and..." in the comments below please.