In the early 1940s, social worker Viola Spolin developed a suite of theater games to stimulate creative expression and build community among Chicago’s diverse immigrant populations. Spolin’s son Paul Sills, founder of legendary theater The Second City, offered up his mother’s games to his comedic ensemble; and ever since, improvisers the world over have played them in order to hone their craft.
But here in Los Angeles, since the founding of non-profit Laughter for a Change (L4C) in 2007, these games have returned to their original context and purpose: helping to build confidence and meaningful connections among residents of underserved communities.
During 2011-2012, L4C founder/director Ed Greenberg ran an after-school workshop with a dozen predominantly low-income, Latino high school freshmen; a trained improviser/doctoral candidate acted as a participant-observer during this year. Through analysis of ethnographic fieldnotes, surveys, and interviews, they found that improvisational theater games provided a no-tech context to practice skills vital to media literacy, such as negotiating trust and exploring identity. As articulated by Felt and Rideau (2012), developing these skills, even in no-tech contexts, prepares learners to apply them in mediated contexts.
In terms of products, participants reported less shyness, more self-confidence, increased comfort with public speaking, greater participation in academic classes, a broader view of teamwork, and fun. L4C’s use of games may help to explain its educational effectiveness. According to USC’s Project New Media Literacies, play “supports constant learning and innovative responses to our surroundings” (Reilly, Jenkins, Felt & Vartabedian, 2012, p. 6). Positive affective climates such as L4C’s also predict such educational boons as greater academic risk-taking and increased motivation (Meyer & Turner, 2006).
L4C’s website claims, “Laughter is powerful. Laughter heals. Laughter builds community.” This study’s findings suggest that L4C’s pedagogy is powerful too, and might help to leverage formal and informal educational settings for healing challenged communities.
Yom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. This means that, for Jews, it’s time for us to reflect on our lives over the past year and, hopefully, wipe the slate clean and start fresh.
Three years ago, I found this poem/self-reflection tool that so eloquently invites us to think/act towards enriching ourselves and our lives. I share it because I care.
The day has come
To take an accounting of my life.
Have I dreamed of late
Of the person I want to be,
Of the changes I would make
In my daily habits,
In the way I am with others,
In the friendship I show companions,
Woman friends, man friends, my partner,
In the regard I show my father and mother,
Who brought me out of childhood?
I have remained enchained too often to less than what I am.
But the day has come to take an accounting of my life.
Have I renewed of late
My vision of the world I want to live in,
Of the changes I would make
In the way my friends are with each other
In the way we find out whom we love
The way we grow to educated people
The way in which the many kinds of needy people
Grope their way to justice?
I, who am my own kind of needy person, have been afraid of visions.
But the day has come to take accounting of my life.
Have I faced up of late
To the needs I really have –
Not for the comforts which shelter my unsureness
Not for honors which paper over my (really tawdry) self,
Not for handsome beauty in which my weakness masquerades,
Not for unattractiveness in which my strengths hide out –
I need to be loved.
Do I deserve to be?
I need to love another.
Can I commit my love?
Perhaps its object will be less than my visions
(And then I would be less)
Perhaps I am not brave enough
To find new vision
Through a real and breathing person.
I need to come in touch with my own power,
Not with titles,
Not possessions, money, high praise,
But with the power that it is mine
As a child of the Power that is the universe
To be a comfort, a source of honor,
Handsome and beautiful from the moment I awoke this morning
That I can risk the love of someone else
That I can risk to change the world
And know that even if it all comes crashing down
I shall survive it all—
Saddened a bit, shaken perhaps,
Not unvisited by tears
But my dreams shall not crash down
My visions not go glimmering.
So long as I have breath
I know I have the strength
To transform what I can be
To what I am.
The day has come
To take an accounting of my life.
Levy, R.D. (Ed.) (1985). On Wings of Awe: A Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hillel Foundations. pp. 104-106.
This event filled to such an extent that I had to join the waiting list. The gods must want me to consider a non-academic career, though; either that or the waiting list is generous. Regardless, I’m attending USC’s Beyond the PhD Career Conference next Wednesday.
Cross your fingers that the networking and dessert at the “dessert and networking reception” (what a combo!) give me the boost I need.
Cooperation is neither the province of women nor an artifact of maturity; cooperation fuels all peoples and emerges from our earliest days.
Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (1958) position obedience as preceding negotiation; thus, cooperation cannot emerge until the capacity for a certain amount of cognitive complexity has been achieved. While Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982) illuminated several deficiencies in Kohlberg’s vision, it did so on the basis of gender bias. According to Gilligan, “They [women] developed in a way that focused on connections among people (rather than separation) and with an ethic of care for those people (rather than an ethic of justice)” (Huff, 2001).
Designating empathy and cooperativeness as expressions of subgroups rather than universal human traits, though, is incredibly problematic. First, just who or what are men and women anyway? I wonder how, if at all, Gilligan’s paradigm accommodates for socially-constructed gender vs. biologically-tied sex. What happens when these superficial distinctions break down, as in the case of butch females, drag queens, transsexuals, intersex individuals, etc? Second, how do the historical record and contemporary social structures support this theory of opposing, partisan priorities? While I tend to distrust biological determinism, human evolution and culture, broadly defined, suggest that all peoples value collaboration and connection. Similarly (and sadly), abuse can induce individuals from all walks of life to commit atrocities that tear those institutions asunder.
“Jen science is based on its own microscopic observations of things not closely examined before. Most centrally, it is founded on the study of emotions such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and amusement, emotions that transpire between people, bringing the good in each other to completion. Jen science has examined new human languages under its microscope—movements of muscles in the face that signal devotion, patterns of touch that signal appreciation, playful tones of the voice that transform conflicts. It brings into focus new substances that we are made of, neurotransmitters as well as regions of our nervous system that promote trust, caring, devotion, forgiveness, and play. It reveals a new way of thinking about the evolution of human goodness, which requires revision of longstanding assumptions that we are solely wired to maximize desire, to compete, and to be vigilant to what is bad” (Keltner, 2009, para 3).
“Reflexive, self-critical thinking doesn’t imply withdrawal from other kids; children can be reflexive together. One piece of evidence Erikson provides for this process is game-playing. At the age of five to six, children begin to negotiate the rules for games, rather than, as at the age of two to three, take the rules as givens; the more negotiation occurs, the more strongly do children become bonded to one another in game-playing…
“Erikson’s sweeping point about this passage is that cooperation precedes individuation: cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart. Erikson may seem to declare the obvious: we could not develop as individuals in isolation. Which means, though, that the very misunderstandings, separations, transitional objects and self-criticism which appear in the course of development are tests of how to relate to other people rather than how to hibernate; if the social bond is primary, its terms change up to the time children enter formal schooling” (Sennett, 2012)
Our mission, therefore, is to support the skills and spaces that facilitate development of the ties that bind. I’ll stop short of calling for hand-holding and Kumbayah-singing — but if you start the song, you know I’ll chime right in.
-“Play is a very serious matter… It is an expression of our creativity; and creativity is at the very root of our ability to learn, to cope, and to become whatever we may be” (Rogers & Sharapan, 1994, p. 13).
-Besides being tied to creativity, play is also science – it is the vehicle through which one asks questions, constructs hypotheses, runs trials, analyzes results, and comes to conclusions. Particularly today, as forward-thinkers exhort innovation and policy-makers (solely, and thus myopically) extol the virtues of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the seriousness and practicality of this should be obvious.
-“In almost every example of what he describes as “the sacred,” play is the defining feature of our most valued cultural rites and rituals. As such, for Huizinga, play is not something we do; it is who we are” (Thomas & Seely Brown, 2011, p. 97).
What is play good for?
A1. Tinkering (agenda-less play) → innovation
-A 10-year-old’s unbounded experimentation led to her discovery of a new molecule
A3. Tinkering → personal and social enrichment
-This culturally-inspired innovation in Senegal contributed to Sunukaddu staff member/inventor Idrissa’s sense of pride and self-efficacy, as well as the benefit of learners near and far.
NOTE: This final photo is from the RFKLab, a space for innovation and community-building at the RFK Community Schools in downtown Los Angeles. Laughter for a Change uses the NMLs in its Tuesday after-school program with high school students. Improvisation is an excellent context and tool for getting at play and other key NMLs.
B1. Gaming (purposeful play) → innovation
“This is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem,” writes Khatib. “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems” (Young, 2011).
B2. Gaming → discovery
“… certain games afford their players the opportunity to step virtually into the shoes of a specific profession and, through game play, become familiar with its domains of knowledge, skill base, values, identities, and ways of thinking about the world” (Joseph, 2008, p. 263).
For more about Barry’s incredible global learning and youth development program, check out Global Kids!
2. Self-efficacy: belief in one’s capacity to produce effects (Bandura, 1977)
Acting in a game demonstrates to players that they can exert power over something, that their efforts make a difference. “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 33).
Playing enriches perseverance, emotional stamina, mental toughness, and divergent thinking.
Game-related talk (processing experience, comparing performance, exchanging feedback, pursuing mastery) builds relationships and community. “Good games… support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 350).
Play and the NMLs
New media literacies (NMLs) are “a set of cultural competencies and social skills young people need” in a culture that “shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4).
Despite their name, NMLs are neither “new” nor exclusively about “media”; rather, they are time-honored practices that support critical thinking and problem-solving.
-Why? Because NMLs are tools for problem-solving. New and old media alike pose “problems,” such as understanding new gadgets, working with dissimilar collaborators, and interpreting data. NMLs – in these examples, play, negotiation, and visualization, respectively — offer tools to solve those problems.
Other key NMLs include collective intelligence, “the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal”; and negotiation, “the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms” (p. 4)
-Problems have an emotional piece to them — they elicit emotional/physical responses in our bodies. Certain strategies can help you to defuse or limit the emotional intensity of a problem. (You can practice these strategies via innovative video game Dojo from GameDesk!)
-Problems also have a practical piece to them — they present real barriers to maximally productive workflow. Which strategies can you invoke for managing conflict and solving problems?
NOTE: My dear friend and mentor, brilliant Garden Nursery School director Jenn Guptill, co-presented this exercise with me back in 2004, when we taught workshops in supporting young children’s conflict resolution for fellow early childhood educators. A-D might be a product of the Safe and Caring Classrooms study group in which we participated, and then we added the E…
-Ask for volunteers to roleplay two characters in a contextually relevant problematic scenario
-These volunteers will play out an encounter in which they address the scenario
-Then they will see what happens when they try out steps A-E
A. Ask neutrally if there is a problem
-Do not assign blame, characterize someone as bad, or assume malicious intent; speak about how things look to you: ”I notice that when I do X, it seems like you do Y.”
-Use “I statements,” explaining how behaviors (NOT the person, just certain acts) they make you feel: “When you do X, it makes me feel like Y.”
-Invite other person to share his/her perspective: ”What do you think is happening?” “What do you think about that?” “What have you noticed?”
B. Brainstorm possible solutions to the conflict
-Both parties ideally should contribute to the brainstorming session
-Ideas should be heard and, ideally, not criticized
-The point is to establish trust and step away from putting people on the defensive
C. Choose which solution you will employ and how you will follow up to assess
-Both parties should agree to the action plan
-The assessment part is key — how will you know if things are working? When will you check in again to ensure that there’s satisfaction and open dialogue?
D. Do it!
-Get ‘er done
-This part is often left out but it allows for minor adjustments, guards against strained relations and icy silence/alienation post-confrontation, and renews awareness of/commitment to the solution (because it can be easy to fall back into old habits)
Play for Problem-solving Activity
-Break into small groups of 5-6, work through a problematic scenario by using a mode of play
Modes of play:
1. examples from nature — think about plants, animals, etc and see if that helps you to model and problem-solve
2. roleplaying — think about the characters involved in a problem and step into their shoes, act like them and try to think like them in order to problem-solve
3. manipulatives — use assorted objects to model systems and relationships
4. art — express problem, using as few words as possible, via paper, markers, Post-Its, and other art supplies
5. narrative — turn the problem into a simple story, as if you were explaining to a young child or an alien from another planet in order to boil it down to its most essential elements and make new discoveries
6. free play — find another playful mode of exploring your group’s problem!
Possible thematic outcomes:
1. innovation: new solutions
2. discovery: new skills or knowledge
3. personal and/or social enrichment: new relationships and/or intrapersonal understandings
1. a way to communicate the problem so that the organization (and/or multiple stakeholders) better understand it
2. multiple possible solutions, a long brainstorm session
3. one processual solution and a set of action steps and recommendations for implementation and evaluation
4. an organizational restructuring involving new working groups or work flows or communication processes, etc.
What did you come up with?
How did your group members work together (e.g., strategies, roles, conflicts, solutions, etc)?
-Reflections can be enriched by use of ORID (Stanfield, 2000), a protocol for facilitating group discussions that is based on four lines of inquiry: Objective (e.g., “What happened?”); Reflective (e.g., “How did it make you feel?”); Interpretive (e.g., “What is this all about?”); and Decisional (e.g., “What is our response?”).
O: What happened? Which words/phrases/moments do you most vividly remember?
R: How did it feel? Where were you surprised/delighted/frustrated?
I: What is all this about? What does all this mean for us? How will this affect our work? What are we learning from this? What is the insight?
D: What is our response? What action is called for? What are our next steps?
Epilogue: City Year L.A. Plays to Problem-solve!
This incredible group of open-hearted, fun-loving, forward-thinking folks enthusiastically embraced the challenge to approach organizational issues from a playful perspective. They harnessed modeling clay, blocks, animal figurines, toothpicks, gumdrops, a Barrel of Monkeys, and narrative form in order to think innovatively and develop viable solutions. Thanks to Shira Weiner for dreaming up and bringing in all of these creative materials, and for inviting me to City Year in the first place! C.Y.L.A., let’s play, hook!