How to Turn Playing With Children Into Child's Play
Improv's "Yes, And..." rule can help you make imaginative play more palatable.
Posted October 7, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Imaginative play offers adults an opportunity to connect with children and expand their creativity and social skills.
- Studies show that authoritative parenting is best. This is when parents have clear boundaries but respectfully collaborate with their children.
- Improv's "Yes, And..." rule can help make playing more with children more fun, productive, and creative for adults and children alike.
I secretly love when someone says they aren’t a “kid person.” These are the people who might respond to a toddler’s proclamation, “I’m a princess,” with a cruel, “No, you’re not.”
They struggle to go along with the flights of fancy for which children are so famous.
Even parents can fall into this category. They say they’re not silly and don’t play. They have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, and that’s that.
But first, let’s talk about what being playful with your children is. And isn’t.
Much has been written about our century-long parenting evolution from not being expected to play with our kids (like ever) to today’s unrealistic expectation that we entertain our children (like all the time). As is often the case, using play to connect with our children falls between these extremes.
Children need time for free play and time to explore without being expected to follow their caregiver’s lead. However, children can also benefit from connecting with their guardians through imaginative play. But playing with your child does not mean doing whatever they tell you to do, just as it doesn’t mean bossing kids around. It is a back-and-forth exchange of ideas, much like a brainstorming session. When it’s working, both parties are having fun, listening to each other, and trying to make the game enjoyable for everyone.
This is where improv’s “Yes, And...” rule comes in handy, especially for all the “not-a-kid-person” people out there.
Improv’s “Yes, And...” rule means going along with someone’s idea and then adding on in a logical way. It works best when you aren’t trying to be funny or clever. Keeping the scene going and making it make sense are the priorities.
If your child says you’re a princess, you can say, “Yes! Princess Delusia. I live in a castle in Birmingham, and my superpower is napping and braiding hair.”
If she talks like a robot, you can respond by also beeping and booping and saying that you have to find your charging station.
If he says there’s a cat living under the bed, you can say that you’d like to meet her and give her some milk.
Following the “Yes, And...” rule during playtime helps boost creativity and keep play going. It’s a roadmap that parent and child can follow and a skill both can practice. Two of my favorite aspects of it are that I don’t have to plan and that imaginative play can keep going indefinitely.
Even if my daughter says I’m dead, I can come back to life or become a ghost. “Yes, And...” means we can just keep riffing.
I spoke with improviser Marla Caceres while researching my book Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition, and she told me a story about an adult using “Yes, And...” with her that still sticks in my brain as a kind of play to which to aspire.
When Caceres was 4 or 5, she and an adult were looking at an ant hill. Caceres explains:
I was like, “Where are the ants going?” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s where they live.” And I’m like, “Oh really, do they have like…” He’s like, “That’s where they live. That’s like their house.” And I said something like, “And they have furniture in there?” And he goes, “Yep, they do.” (115)
Then Caceres’ game of “Yes, And...” came to an abrupt end when the adult went off to talk to another grown-up, but it’s a terrific example of how easy and imaginative “Yes, And...” can be. Just go with it, add on, and see what happens.
Imaginative and Authentic Play
The beauty of improvisational parenting is that it helps us bring our authentic selves to each interaction, listen deeply, and create imaginative moments, no props needed.
“Yes, And...” has its limits. It is great for riffing and can be a powerful tool to deescalate tantrums, but it does not mean you should say yes to everything children say. If you want to make imaginative play more fun, try “Yes, And...” If some kid says that they want to put their jacket on by themselves, “Yes, And...” can help them test their own limits. If your teenager says they want to drop out of school, you can use “Yes, And...” to explore how they’re feeling instead of negating their reality by cutting them off and saying that’s not an option. “Yes, And...” can help you hear your child out, which can be a powerful negotiation tool. But if a baby demands to eat all the cookies or climb to the top of a cliff, a clear, firm “no” will suffice. Boundaries are the fence that makes playing in the yard safe.
Sometimes, real-life adult and child scenes are slow to get going, but they often end in laughter when we focus on and riff off each other. When they don’t, we have something to talk about and practice. What can we do next time so that both of us have fun playing? Using the “Yes, And...” tool gives us something to practice and a goal to reach. How can this be fun for everyone? How can everyone’s ideas get some airtime?
“Yes, And...” gives us a language to connect through play. And that language may even mean that, deep down, we are all kid people at heart. At the very least, it should make imaginative play slightly more palatable, somewhat more often.
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