Wired To Connect: Social-Emotional Learning Through Applied Improvisation


Now more than ever, as the pace of change intensifies and the time between action and response grows ever shorter, the ability to deal effectively with the unexpected and adapt to an ever-changing and uncertain social climate are essential skills. As technology drives an ever-more complex world we are faced with a near-constant learning curve in some area of life, which can be both psychologically and emotionally stressful. And the same self-protective psychological mechanisms nature provides to deal with a heightened sense of threat — raise our heart rate, blood pressure and the blood flow to our arms and legs while lowering activity in our pre-frontal cortex and with that, our cognitive, reasoning capacities — have us fighting, fleeing or freezing when we most need to be receptive, agile thinkers and effective communicators.

Applied Improvisation games and exercises give us new choices for thinking under exactly this kind of stress. They are designed to shift the “me-focused” emotional response in the face of the unknown to a “we-focused” one, growing a reservoir of positive creative energy from which everyone involved can draw strength. Because our brains are wired to connect equally as much as they are wired to protect, these creative techniques are a reliable way to shift out of automatic defensive approaches to uncertainty and into a more spontaneous, expansive state of mind that is highly conducive to learning. Research published in the journal Arts In Psychotherapy showed that increasing spontaneity correlates positively with enhanced ability to ward off distractions and is related to the executive functions of the brain. And Applied Improvisation produces spontaneity using techniques that drive social-emotional connection, which is now widely understood to create optimal learning conditions. “The thinking part of our brain evolved through entanglement with older parts that we now know are involved in emotion and feelings,” writes biology professor and author James Zull in The Art Of Changing The Brain: Enriching The Practice of Teaching By Exploring The Biology Of Learning. “Emotion and thought are physically entangled — immensely so. This brings our body into the story because we feel our emotions in our body and the way we feel always influences our brain.”

“Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.” Dr. Matthew Lieberman, MD, in Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect

Research shows that Social-Emotional Learning techniques sharpen cognitive abilities. enhance the capacity for collaboration while boosting achievement at school and work across the lifespan. In his book Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina explains this phenomenon: “When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’” Social-emotional competencies learned through creative engagement can translate into the interpersonal effectiveness and psychological resilience associated with Emotional Intelligence.

Improv games promote psychological safety and the potential for players to take emotional and creative risks with one another and examine concepts and ideas together. When everyone involved follows these principles, group members can enter into a combined “state of play” — a state of heightened cognitive openness and arousal, which is felt as an interest and willingness to experiment, try new things, explore ideas and take creative risks. In this state, trying out a new behavior that is unfamiliar is experienced as safe, even though possibly awkward and uncomfortable, and it becomes easier and more automatic with repetition.

Core Competencies of Social-Emotional Learning and improv games exercises that strengthen them

Self-Awareness: The capacity to recognize one’s own thoughts and feelings and their impact on behavior, to know one’ strengths and gifts as well as weaknesses and areas where one needs work.

Social-Awareness: The capacity to make an effort to see other people clearly, and to interact with others from roles that are appropriate, to see situations from others’ perspective, and recognize social, familial, school and community resources.”

Exercise: FUN FACTS

Heighten awareness and express positive aspects of self;

Take focus in the group in a structured way;

Give focus to others in the group;

Build up awareness of others in the group;

In turn, each participant steps into the circle and shares a “fun fact” about him/herself. The group responds with an enthusiastic repeat of what the person shared and “wow, impressive.” e.g. Player: “I have been to every state in the United States at least once.” Group: “You’ve been to every state in the US at least once!! Wow. Impressive.”

Round 2: In turn, players says “I don’t want to brag, but I’m really good at ______ (baking gluten free treats, or coaching kids in soccer, or playing the piano). Group responds with “impressive, you’re so good at baking gluten free treats!!!!”

Harvest and Share

Each player notices something specific about a color, pattern or shape in the clothing or jewelry person sitting to his/her right and makes an association to it and then shares both with the group, e.g. Player #1 notices a necklace worn by the person sitting to her right, — we’ll call her “Jenny” — which is made of entwined circles, makes a mental association to it and then shares: I harvest Jenny’s necklace with its design of linked circles and it reminds me of the Olympic rings, which are a symbol of people working together to achieve high goals.” Each player makes a point of noticing, taking in or “harvesting” a detail about the person to the right, and making an association to it.


  • Make visible and conscious the natural process of neuroperception, of “noticing” that human beings do with one another in social situations, which can lead to anxiety and subtle defensiveness when it is unconscious in situations of uncertainty or risk;
  • Practice the improvisation technique of receiving and using what others offer- the fundamental improv principle of “yes…and” — just by their presence and what is unique about them;
  • Connect the group to one another by sharing an association;
  • Connection the group to one another by supporting each person’s harvesting and sharing.

Port Key

“The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world,” writes Ted DesMaisons about the origin of the name of this exercise in his blog post “Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set Of Improv Games For The Classroom and Work Enviroment” on website Anima Learning.


  • Enhance the sense of belonging within the group;
  • Create emotional and social connections within group members;
  • Increase knowledge about moments in each participant’s life;
  • Provide an opportunity to share without overthinking;

The group sits in a circle, and player #1 gets a suggestion for an everyday object, e.g. Towel. Player #1 begins to share a story arising from the word, starting with the image it inspires, e.g. “Towel takes me to a day at the beach with my little sister…” and finishing the story with an object that is then offered to the next person: “and we took the seashells into the house and put them in a vase with flowers. So I give you a vase.”

Social-Emotional Competencies:

Self-Management: The capacity to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior appropriate to different situations, to know what triggers stress, how to deal with one’s emotional reactions and self-motivate.

Relationship Skills: The capacity to form rewarding, appropriate interpersonal connections with others, and to communicate, listen, engage in rewarding partnerships, negotiate conflict and seek or offer help as needed.

Collaboration: The capacity to make respectful, constructive choices about personal behavior or social interactions, and to be grounded in a set of values, ethics, self-expectations and skills for interacting with others in useful, productive ways in order to create and learn together.”



Practice close listening to partners;

Practice supporting partners;

Experience the support of partners and the group;

Practice making something positive out of whatever is offered;

A player is assigned a partner (the person sitting next to him/her in the circle is fine or the partner can be assigned some other way). The player is given 2–3 minutes to rant about anything in life they want to gripe and emote about. The idea is for this person to openly express his/her feelings and complaints about some issue or life situation. When time is called, the partner shares about what this rant reveals about the player’s values, e.g.

“Ranter: “Traffic on Long Island is out of control, there are too many cars and I spend way too much time stuck on these roads. There is no public transportation, there are no alternatives to driving. Its bad for the environment, its bad for my mental health to not have choices about how to get around and its wasting my time.”

Partner: My friend here values his time, he values the planet and the environment, he values the public good, he values people having choices about how to get around.”

This is a way to practice listening to and understanding others from the subtext of what can seem like negativity but has its roots in deep concern about an issue or set of values. It is also a way to practice improvising with others, providing strong support for and radical acceptance of them.


Players partner with one other player. A suggestion from the group is assigned for them about which they are to improvise a monologue together. In the first round, a group member is assigned to call “change” as the pair improvises their monologue. A player begins a spontaneous monologue on the topic. When “change” is called, he/she stops speaking, the partner repeats the last sentence and continues to improvise. The monologue continues with this give and take determined by the group member calling “change.”


Practice taking and giving focus in a partnership/collaboration;

Practice close listening — a key interpersonal skill;

Allow ideas to rise up and play with them;

Strengthen awareness of what it feels like to produce something with another person in real time;

Explore self-regulation by having to follow up with a partner’s ideas, let go of control and practice piloting through anxiety;

Round 2: In this version, players do the same monologue creation, but this time when the partner wishes to jump in (or it seems like the person speaking is running out of steam or ideas) he/she taps the person speaking and then picks up the monologue by repeating the last sentence, then improvising until tapped by the partner. The idea is to try to give and take focus in a mutually supportive way while keeping a flow of ideas going.

This exercise can be used to discuss material taught in a workshop or class, including academic material. Having to play with the material in this collaborative way internalizes it while strengthening social-emotional skills.

Jude Treder-Wolff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Group Psychotherapist, Music Therapist and Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, President of Lifestage, Inc who designs and facilitates creative personal and professional development workshops and classes.


Written by

LCSW, CGP, MT & Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, consultant/trainer and writer/performer. www.lifestage.org, www.mostlytruethings.com

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