Physical literacy is a key that you can give your baby, your toddler, your child that will open up many doors for them as they grow up.
While we may typically think of sports when considering the possibilities a physically literate person can explore, there is a wide range of other options that also become available when we know how to move. And one of those out-of-the-box options is improv.
Wikipedia defines improv as:
“Improvisational theatre, often called improv or impro, is the form of theatre, often comedy, in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted: created spontaneously by the performers.”
In Canada, we have the famous Second City which boasts alumni such as Dan Akroyd, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Mike Meyers, and many more. Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Dratch are among the Second City Chicago alumni.
If your child dreams of a life in acting or comedy, improv is a great place to start. But even if they don’t, improv classes are a fun and creative way for kids to gain confidence, build resilience, take risks, learn how to focus on the needs of others, and – something that has become increasingly important to many parents – learn how to fail.
It gives them the kind of life skills that parents often look to team sports to provide.
To learn more about improv and its relationship with physical literacy, I spoke with the artistic director of Toronto’s Second City Training Centre and Education, Kevin Frank. Kevin is also as the dad of two active young women now in their twenties, and a percussionist.
Kevin told me that when kids begin taking improv classes – lessons are offered for kids as young as 8 years old and up – already possessing physical skills and body awareness has a big impact on their performance and the speed with which they can progress.
“We recognize the students right away that have movement training because it becomes second nature to them to include that information in the stories that they are collaborating with. It can be that they are very engaging as improvisers, other improvisers gravitate towards them because they are so easy to understand, it can be an advantage to be physically literate and understand the power of movement.”
Physicality – the ability to communicate with our body – is a huge tool for the improv performer. With so much of our human communication being done through body language, the more access you have to your body the bigger your vocabulary becomes and the more stories you can tell with it.
“… Because we don’t have a script or a director, and we haven’t blocked out our scenes, we really encourage the improvisers to use their bodies, and the way they move, to communicate to their scene partners non-verbally.”
So the building of skills is not only a helpful foundation to be successful at improv, it’s also part of the classes themselves and Second City works to develop physicality in its performers from a young age. Because as Kevin told me, “When you’re creating a scene [with a scene partner], you can make three kinds of offers: a verbal offer, a physical offer, or an emotional offer. So if you leave out one of the offers you’re missing out on an opportunity to tell a really dynamic story.”
One of the fun exercises at Second City is something called a “dance diamond” in which a group of four stand in a diamond shape facing the audience. The dancer at the top “point” of the diamond in front of everyone else and is the leader. The leader performs simple dance moves (waving hands in the air, jumping, clapping, etc.) while the rest of the dancers imitate the moves. From time to time, the leader dances to the left and all four dancers shift into new positions and a new leader emerges. The dancing continues during the transition.
“We use [dance diamond] to teach people how to give and take focus and how to take care of their scene partners, but we also do it because it’s quite fun to watch how literally someone can mirror someone’s offers and create a story,” Kevin explained.
Another benefit to being a physically literate improviser is the mental agility that comes with being physically active.
“An improviser requires a very fertile mind … and that kind of mental dexterity is often accompanied with someone who is active because they are engaged and are constantly rewiring their brain and creating different paths so they have that ability to think differently.”
If you have a child who has been developing fundamental movement skills through gymnastics, dance, soccer, or another physical activity, and wants to try something new, improv is another way to be active and build on skills like working with others, setting goals, and achieving them. It can also provide opportunities to be active without being sports related.
Kevin noted how much better his performing is, both as an improviser and a percussionist, when he’s engaging in training for a marathon, for example. He’s can see the difference when he’s more physically engaged and prepared to take his body to its limits.
So when you’re throwing that ball in the backyard, letting kids climb the door frames, going on family hikes, or signing up for soccer you may be laying the groundwork for the next Martin Short or Catherine O’Hara.
Second City holds improv classes throughout the school year as well as March break and summer camps for kids grade 2 and up.