“Everyone should be able to do one card trick, tell two jokes and recite three poems, in case they are ever trapped in an elevator.” —Lemony Snicket
It’s not that you need to plan for being trapped in an elevator, but if it were to occur, creative tools like comedy and laughter can ease the tension and enjoyably pass the time. And even if you never find yourself in dire circumstances, humor can make daily life happier. In fact, humor is such a critical part of life that scientists have studied its effect on brain development in children.
In 2012, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine studied brain scans of children aged 6 to 12 and found a strengthening of neural networks in reaction to humorous situations. The study, led by Dr. Alan Reiss and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, states that humor plays a “critical role in building and maintaining relationships, emotional health and cognitive function.”Dr. Reiss, who runs the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, explains that “in particular, we think a balanced and consistent sense of humor may help children negotiate the difficult period of pre-adolescence and adolescence.”
In my experience, kids seem to have intuitive comedic tendencies. Their timing and delivery of one-liners is impeccable. Their physical ability to execute a pratfall worthy of The Three Stooges is priceless to witness. And they know when and how to really ham it up to maximize laughs when they have an audience. So how do you capitalize on those natural talents? The key can be found in following some basic rules from improvisation: say “yes,”just listen and stay present in the moment. Improvisation is a form of theatre that happens spontaneously—none of the scenes are pre-written or planned; it all happens in real time.
“Yes, and…”is the oldest adage in the improv world. Actors must remember to literally say “yes”to whatever they are given. For example, one actor says, “We should jump in that rocket ship and head to the moon.”If the other actor responds with “Nah, I don’t think we should,”it leaves the scene and relationship with nowhere to go. Instead, by responding with “Yes, and we should try and collect moon rocks to bring home to all our friends,”the actors have something to build upon; plot and purpose can grow within their scene and in relationship to one another.
“Yes, and…”also happens to be great life advice. In an interview with Oprah in O Magazine, Tina Fey extrapolates on the theory of saying yes. “The fun is always on the other side of a yes,”she says. “‘Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward’has helped me to be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.”By keeping an open mind and saying an eternal “Yes, and…,”positive circumstances can develop.
Have you heard the quote about how most people don’t listen, they wait to talk? In improv—just as in life—listening is vital to a meaningful engagement. “Everything the person says to you is an offer; an offer to comment, ask questions, seek advice, be understood, be supportive,”says Jason Dykstra, a conflict management specialist who also takes improv classes at The Second City Toronto. “The more we accept that person’s offers, the more we build up trust, rapport and relationship.”
Stay present in the moment
Staying present in the moment can be challenging in our hectic, technology-infused lives. When you stay present in the moment, you are observant about the world around you. You don’t concentrate on expectations of the future or disappointments of the past. You don’t miss out on finding the funny moments with your family because an email alert popped up on your smart phone. For a humorous take on staying present, view The Atlantic’s recent video, “Single-tasking is the New Multi-tasking.”It gently pokes fun at our modern inability to focus on just one thing at a time.
Here are some activities you can use at home to cultivate creativity:
1. Try a visualization exercise
Have your kids lie on the floor and ask them to close their eyes and notice what parts of their body they feel touching the ground. Take several slow, deep breaths with them. Make sure they keep their eyes closed as you verbally take them on an adventure of their choosing. First have them imagine taking a transportation mode of their choice—train, plane, car or maybe horseback—to a favorite nature spot, where they would want to hang out or vacation. Ask them to think about what they see in their special place. How does the air feel on their skin? What do they smell or hear? This is a great exercise to calm down over-excited children or to prepare kids for focused activity time. Ask them to share where they went on their journey; you will be fascinated by their answers.
2. Be straight-up silly
Take some dedicated time to be unabashedly goofy with your kids: have a dance party, write knock-knock jokes, do karaoke-style sing-offs, act in funny improvised scenes, write a short play they can perform for neighbors, create a family circus, let them video record themselves pretending to do commercials for their favorite toys or books and play dress up with them. As Shaun Branigan, camp director says, “Encourage imaginative play. You’ll get to see their perspective and be surprised at how witty and clever your children are.”
3. Attend live theatre performances
Nothing beats enjoying memorable experiences with your family. See plays, concerts, puppet or magic shows and enjoy watching performances together. It makes for fun quality time and great conversation afterwards about what everyone observed, learned, enjoyed or didn’t enjoy. Live artistic experiences change children’s perspectives on life and can cultivate their understanding of the world in which they live—and perhaps inspire the joke they’ll keep in their back pockets for an unexpected elevator delay.
Ellana Kelter is a camp counselor, music teacher and program director for the School of Comedy Summer Camps, along with being a performer at Esther’s Follies.