There is an improv game we play with adults at recovery treatment centers. The exercise calls for someone to start with an imaginary ball of energy. The first person is holding the ball, moving it around with their hands and describing what it is. 

“I’m holding a beach ball,” says the first player. 

After pretending to bounce it a few times, they toss the ball to another player in the circle. That person catches the beach ball. It is now up to the player holding the beach ball to instantly turn the ball into something else. Anything else. 

“I’ve got a basketball,” they say and make movements as though they are dribbling. 

Then they bounce it to yet another player in the circle. 

That person grabs the basketball, thinks for a few seconds and then announces “I’m playing jump rope.” 

Everyone laughs along with the player who is now hopping up and down while twirling their arms as if swinging the rope over their head. They stop and throw the rope to someone else. 

“I’m turning the jump rope into a leaf blower,” they declare as they position their arms to demonstrate there is a strong machine in their hands that is blowing much air from its snout. 

Laughter erupts and the game continues. 

In order to begin the game, an improv leader needs to explain the game. The difference between explaining the game to children versus adults is startling.

ADULTS

They are asked to stand, although not required. A circle is formed. The group is told there is an energy ball. The leader is holding it and motions with their hands to demonstrate its existence. “The ball can be anything you want,” says the leader. The instructions are given they should say out loud what type of energy ball they are holding. Then after they have used it to pass it to someone else. That person will turn it into something else. Ready?

“Does it have to be a ball?” Someone asks. 

“It can be anything you want.”

“Do we have to be able to hold it and throw it?”

“It can be anything you want.”

“Does it need to be real?

“It can be anything you want.”

After the three questions get the same answer no one else asks for further nuances to the rules. 

The leader starts the game by being the first to declare what the ball is, uses it and then passes it. 

CHILDREN

They are asked to stand, although not required. A circle is formed. The group is told there is an energy ball. The leader is holding it and motions with their hands to demonstrate its existence. “The ball can be anything you want,” says the leader. The instructions are given they should say out loud what type of energy ball they are holding. Then after they have used it to pass it to someone else. That person will turn it into something else. Ready?

“Pass it to me!” Exclaims one child. 

“I know what it could be,” declares another with a grin. 

And the game begins. 

The adults were cautious. They wanted to make sure they played the game correctly. For most adults, there is a sense of uncertainty that clouds their minds rIght up until the point when the game starts flowing. Once a few people have had their turn the inhibition melts and the imagination opens. 

The children were eager. They had enough information once they saw the leader pretending to hold an energy ball and saying the ball could be anything they wanted. They immediately wanted their turn to say what the ball was and try to make the other players laugh. 

We lose our ability to play as adults. We get lost in the rules. We are only comfortable letting our imaginations open up when we are confident such exposure will not prove us wrong in some way. We are afraid we will make a mistake, be embarrassed and need to be corrected. 

As children we relish our ability to play. We accept the rules quickly and then proceed to test their flexibility. Our imagination is typically the most favored component of our thoughts. We do not fear telling those around us the fantastic story we made up because we know it’s pretend and there can be no mistakes. 

We need to know it’s ok to fail as adults. 

We need to know it will not hurt us to use our imaginations. 

We need to know it’s okay to be passionate and eager.

That’s falling forward

NOTE: This post first appeared on ImprovTherapygroup.com