How to Play with Kids
There is no greater improv practice than playing with kids. They have abounding joy and imagination and they expect you to be swept up in their schemes.
If you don’t want to slow down their pace and temper their mood, you have to roll with the punches and think fast. The good news is that children are far more forgiving than a typical improv audience.
The Story of the Treasure Seekers is a (very British) book about a family of six children: the Bastables. They have fallen on hard times after the loss of their mother and the bad business luck of their father.
The entire book is one scheme after another the children hatch in order to make their fortune. Each one descends into mischief and nonsense. The book is also a lesson in how to play with children.
The adults in the story run the full range of over-serious teetotalers, to strict but forgiving gentlemen, to watchful caretakers of a young princess who are afraid she will stump her toe, to people who inherently understand the playfulness of children and allow themselves to be swept up in the moment.
It is this last group of adults that the story frames as “good people.” Children and adults who cannot use their imagination are to be pitied.
The whole story culminates in a dinner the children prepare for their uncle, and this uncle understand exactly how to get into the spirit.
One of them asks “Would you like grown-up dinner, Uncle, or play-dinner?”
He did not hesitate a moment, but said: “Play-dinner, by all means.”
They then spend the evening pretending to slay the wild beast, putting bits of it on sticks of wood. They climb on top of the chest of drawers in the room and pretend to pick almonds and raisins from the boughs of trees. They pretend to trade for figs brought over by rich merchants on a ship (the second drawer from the top). And much more.
At the end of the night, the Uncle says “I have never enjoyed a dinner more.” This Uncle ends up being the ultimate hero of the story.
We can learn a lot about playing with children from this delightful book, and in particular, from the adults who know how to do it well.
Don’t ask questions. Just play. In the words of the narrator from the book: “..it is so seldom you meet any children who can begin to play right off without having everything explained to them.” This goes double for adults.
Don’t hold back. The more over-the-top, the better. Now is not the time to be self-conscious. Get on the floor. Jump up and down. Roll under the table. When you get shot by a fake arrow, you make it the most glorious death ever witnessed by man or beast.
Don’t stop the momentum. Try not to start anything with “but.” Practice the “yes, and” method. “Yes, and then I turned into a dinosaur.” They will let you know if you have gone too far out-of-bounds, so always err on the side of too much. The only penalty for messing up is more laughter.
Don’t say “pretend.” You are not “pretending” to be a pirate. You are a pirate.
If you let yourself be a conduit for their imagination, you will find that you are able to share in their joy as well.
Don’t waste this time by infecting it with grown-up things.