Improv Games for Virtual Space

How and why improv works for remote learning

Artwork by J.M. Leiner

hese improv theater exercises have all worked well over video calls during remote learning. Improv games are a fun way to inspire group cohesion and require no extra materials or resources. Several of these improv games have been adapted from Peggy Taylor’s Creative Facilitation with Partners for Youth Empowerment. A handful I learned from Jason Slavick, artistic director of the theater troupe Liars & Believers. A few I came up with in collaboration with students. In the spirit of improv, see what works for the group and experiment! 🚀

Games for getting started

These are also good for establishing the group order of a Circle

✺ Energy Ball

Facilitator creates an energy ball between their hands, names the person they’re passing to next, and tosses the energy ball through the camera. Next recipient catches the energy ball, names the next person, tosses it to them, and so on.

✺ Naming the Energy Ball

Same as Energy Ball, but the person also gives the ball a name. Recipient greets the previous tosser and the energy ball by name, gives the energy ball a new name, passes it to the next person, and so on.

Ex: [Lauren gets the ball from Erica] “Good morning Erica and Fuzzwuzzy. I’m renaming the energy ball Clifford the Third and passing to Darius!” — Darius: “Good morning Lauren and Clifford the Third, I’m renaming the energy ball…”

Games with movement

✺ Transforming Energy Ball

Facilitator shows the group the energy ball, then physically remolds it into a new object, declares what it is and pantomimes using the object, and then the whole group uses the object. That person then chooses who to pass the object to next, and that person remolds it into a new object, and so on.

Ex: Alejandro remolds the energy ball into a telephone. He holds the phone up to his ear, everyone mimes using the phone, and then passes it to Nia. “Phone call for you, Nia.” Nia receives the phone, says “Oh hi!” on the phone, and then remolds it into a pitchfork, lifting up hay…

Alternate version: object is not named, and the next person has to guess what it is. This is harder to do in virtual space but can add a fun twist.

✺ Yes, Let’s!

Someone suggests doing something. It can be anything, the more mundane and ridiculous the better. The whole group (unmuted) answers “Yes, let’s!” and then acts out the suggestion enthusiastically as humanly possible.

Ex: Grace says, “Let’s look at our thumbs.” Everyone says, “Yes, let’s!” and with maximum interest examines their thumbs. Carlos says, “Let’s do five jumping jacks,” everyone says, “Yes, let’s!” and does five enthusiastic jumping jacks.

✺ Exercise Popsicle Sticks

Group leader has an imaginary jar of popsicle sticks, each one with an exercise “written” on it. The leader pulls out a stick and someone suggests what the exercise is, and then the group does the exercise together (i.e. jumping jacks, planks, arm circles, etc.)

Alternate version: The leader pulls out two popsicle sticks and everyone does a hybrid exercise of both suggestions.

✺ Kamehameha

Facilitator sends “energy blasts” as depicted below to different sides of the screen: LEFT, RIGHT, UP, DOWN, CENTER. The group dodges the blasts by moving in the opposite direction of where the blast is pointed. Blast left → dodge right, etc. Up requires ducking, down requires jumping, and center can be any direction. An optional point system could be included to tally successful dodges and/or hits.

Games with words and sounds

✺ Pass the Face

One person makes a face, and names and passes it to the next person. The recipient makes the same face, then makes a new face and passes it on.

Alternate version: One person makes a face, and everyone makes the same face. Facilitator either calls on the next person, asks for volunteers, or the face maker chooses who to pass to next.

✺ Pass the Sound

Next level up from Pass the Face is Pass the Sound. Same idea, one person makes a sound (not a word) and passes it to the next person, who makes the same sound, and so on.

Alternate version: Whole group makes the sound, then sound maker chooses who they’re passing the sound to next.

✺ Pass the Word

Next level up from Pass the Sound is Pass the Word. One person says a word, passes the word to the next person, and then that person as quickly as possible says a new word and passes it on.

This seems like the easiest version but it is actually the hardest. The essential part of this exercise (and most improv) is not thinking. This game taps into free association and intuition, and also builds trust that if someone says something silly or weird it will be OK.

✺ Spontaneous Story — word by word

One person starts the story with a word, and each person adds another word going around the circle. One member of the group writes down the story as it is created.

✺ Spontaneous Story — sentence by sentence

Same as Spontaneous Story word by word, except instead each person says a complete sentence.

✺ Fortunately/Unfortunately

One person starts a story: “Fortunately, ________.” Next person says, “Unfortunately, ________,” alternating around the circle between fortunately and unfortunately ad infinitum.

Ex: “Fortunately, we finally went on vacation.” “Unfortunately, it was to Siberia.”

Games for building trust

✺ Zen Counting

The group counts to a number decided by the facilitator. Only one person can say a number at a time, and if two people say the same number at once the group needs to start over. Nobody can make an indication that they will be the next one to speak.

Version #1: a person can only say one number during the sequence.
Version #2: people can say numbers as many times as they want, making it more challenging to reach the goal.

✺ Club Gesture

Everyone chooses a quality to share about themselves, and picks a gesture or movement to represent it. Going around the circle, each person says their quality and demonstrates the accompanying gesture, and the whole group does the gesture too.

Ex: Gloria says, “I’m Gloria and I’m highly organized,” pantomiming arranging objects in the air with great focus. Everyone then does her gesture of arranging objects in the air.

Alternate version: Each person makes a gesture but does not verbally share their quality, and the group guesses what their quality is.

✺ Name Amplifier

One person says their name with a modifier starting with the same letter. Then together everyone says that person’s name and modifier three times. It’s a little chaotic with everyone unmuted and the video time lag, but still fun.

Ex: Toni says, “Terrific Toni.” The group in unison repeats, “Terrific Toni! Terrific Toni! Terrific Toni!”

Alternate version: Each person says their name accompanied by a gesture, and the group repeats their name and gesture three times.

✺ Support Beams

Everyone thinks of something that is challenging for them right now. Depending on the level of trust established in the group, it could be explored out loud in a Talking Circle, or it could just be a thought held within. The facilitator then models holding up their hands with palms facing out to “touch” the sides of their camera/video window. It then appears that everyone on the screen is touching hands, a powerful visual of mutual support. Ending with virtual high fives is one way to close the exercise.

Games with drawing

These games require paper, a dry erase board, or some drawing surface. Pixilart or Kleki work well as online drawing interfaces, but they require participants to do a screenshare.

✺ Verbing

One person says a noun. Another person says a verb that the noun is doing. Then everyone draws the verbing noun and shares their picture.

Ex: Avi says, “Pizza.” Luisa says, “Running.” Then everyone draws a running pizza.

✺ Verbing: Coming Soon

Same premise as Verbing, and everyone also makes up a one sentence movie preview about their drawing.

Ex: Running Pizza — “Will Henry Pizza escape from Dave the Pizza Delivery Guy… before the Super Bowl is over? COMING SOON.”

✺ Drawinguess

A version of Pictionary in virtual space: Each round, one person is the word giver, one person is the word illustrator, and everyone else are the word guessers.

Different ways for the word giver to covertly give the word to the illustrator:
1. Google / video interface chat
2. Everyone but the word illustrator closes their eyes, and the word giver shows the word written down on paper
3. Everyone but the word giver and illustrator
promise to mute their computers for 10 seconds as the word is shared audibly

Alternate version for small groups: One person is the suggestionairre-guesser — they offer a category for everyone else to pick something to draw. Someone (ideally the suggestionairre-guesser) times 30 seconds, and then the suggestionairre-guesser guesses what everyone’s drawing is. Players whose drawings are guessed correctly receive a point.

Improv: how and why this is working

The missing senses

During remote learning, only two senses are typically activated on video calls: seeing and hearing. For someone who is visually or hearing impaired, the sensory information is reduced even further. Much of the unconscious information we receive in person is absent, subtle cues that help regulate our nervous systems: movement, breath rate, touch, taste, smell, spatial recognition, vocal tonality, eye contact, and the gestalt quality of presence.

The bridge to learning

In Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, Zaretta Hammond describes how stress and anxiety impact deeper learning engagement. Our emotional state primes the ability to learn. Joy opens the mind and activates the power of attention.

These improv games can help introduce more joy and connectivity into the remote learning space. In my experience, the fun factor is easy to gauge. If a game is landing or sinking, it is unmistakable. Different age groups seem to respond better to different games, though there are no steadfast rules. The spirit of improvisation invites experimentation and participation.

A simple exercise like tossing around an energy ball accomplishes something important and difficult to experience during these long months of social isolation: it opens the door for co-imagining and co-creating. The entire group senses and responds to an imaginary ball flying through windows on the call. It adds the dimension of space to the flat screen. Kids intuitively catch on within seconds. Many of the games require names to be said again and again in order to identify whose turn it is; this also draws people into the virtual space and makes them feel seen. The majority of the exercises activate mirror neurons, fostering group cohesion and a sense of belonging.

Improv can help sustain connection, inspire creativity, and lift kids’ spirits during remote learning. Passing the energy ball to you!

Social worker. Community organizer. Storyteller. jmleiner[at]gmail.com

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