Movement, Active Learning, and Engagement: Boosts Content Knowledge and Literacy Skills

As I prepare for my first “Movement and Active Learning” conference I reflect on the 9-year journey with this work. It all began when my late sister, then head of education and writing at The Second City Training Center in Chicago suggested that improv exercises could be used as teaching tools for students. I jumped at her suggestion and after piloting a workshop or two with teachers, we knew that her hunch was right. 

The teachers who participated in those early “fact-finding” improv workshops helped my sister and me to understand just how far reaching Viola Spolin games like Zip-Zap-Zop or One Word Story could develop content knowledge and literacy skills. Rob Chambers, the President of The Second City Training Center, supported and encouraged our work as we discovered the deep connections between improvisation and learning.  We found:

  •  Students loved the movement and creativity when they participated in improv activities
  • Teachers found limitless connections between learning and improv. This is still very true today when I conduct workshops and present at conferences on this work.
  • Students with special needs fully participate and improv builds inclusive classrooms.
  • Improv develops literacy skills in vocabulary, sequencing, inferencing, and reflective analysis of text.

There are more connections but I think that these are the most important. When I present at conferences and schools (most recently at the Association for Middle Level Education and Chicago Shakespeare Teacher Workshops), educators respond with tremendous enthusiasm and share that the activities are easy to implement. 

I hope that you will be able to join me and my colleague, Liz Krane at our one day Movement and Active Learning conference on December 9th to learn more!

How is this for a Crazy Idea?

I had just returned from presenting at the Learning and Brain Conference on Creativity in Teaching and Learning when I received a call from Jenny Knight, the director of the Lower School at Miami Country Day School. Two of her teachers had participated in a workshop that I conducted using improvisation in the classroom to develop literacy skills and content knowledge. “We would love to have you at our school and teach the faculty about using improvisation in the classroom,” Jenny announced. As we discussed the professional development, Jenny mused, “How is this for a crazy idea?” As soon as she asked the question, I knew I found a kindred education spirit.

Jenny proposed that we teach parents some improvisation games on Back to School Night. As a mother I had always experienced Back to School Nights that were more informational sessions than showing me what my children were actually doing in the classroom. I thought it was brilliant, especially given the Miami Country Day School environment in which creativity, collaboration, and student centered learning is paramount. Jenny, her colleagues and I plotted and planned. We decided to teach three improvisation games to the parents. The teachers would model the games, then the parents would play the games, and we provided opportunities for curricular applications. Imagine a gymnasium with 200 parents and teachers all playing improvisation games like Zip-Zap-Zop, Alphabet, and Parts of a Whole. These games promote conceptualization of complex ideas. There was laughter and engagement in a community that not only espouses creativity and collaboration, but practices it.

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

The teachers lead the parents in a game of Zip-Zap-Zop (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

Parents listen to instruction for Improv in the Classroom activity (Miami Country Day School 2016)

All Great Teaching Begins with “Yes…AND”!

For the past two days I have been fortunate enough to work with teachers and students in the Lower School (grades Pre-k through 5th grade) at Miami Country Day School. After a professional development day that focused on using improvisation games in the classroom (based on my co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom) I was able to teach some of the games to teachers. I always relish the opportunity to spend time in classrooms. Being in classrooms with colleagues and students is exhilarating (and a bit exhausting). Armed with a full schedule of classroom visits, I ventured to witness the Miami Country Day School Vision in action. Here’s what I saw:

It is absolutely amazing to me how improvisational activities have limitless applications for teaching and learning. For example, the game “Parts of a Whole” (for a description of the game, see below) focuses on complex cognition, identifying and representing details, and visualizing ideas. The students also learn about collaboration, listening to each other and following directions. Not only are these skills important for academic success, they contribute to the development of a well-rounded individual. As I played “Parts of a Whole” with students, my beliefs were confirmed.

In the preschool classroom, the students created different animals. We broke down the elements of the game into the smallest chunks. For example, as we prepared to create a cheetah, we identified the different parts and how we might physicalize them. I especially loved one preschool student who thought that our cheetah should have a t-shirt. With the older students, we created animals, life cycles, hurricanes, and more.

Parts of a Whole

From The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs, Jossey-Bass, 2008


In this exercise, students work together to create a variety of locations, objects, animals, machines, or anything else they can dream up.

Skills are developed in listening, team building, self - awareness, self-confidence, critical and creative problem solving, and idea generation.


·      Invite six to ten students into a back line.

·      The teacher and the audience select something to create.

·      One student steps out of the back line and announces what part of the whole he will become.

·      The student becomes that part with his whole body.

·      The next student steps out and announces what part she will become.

·      She adds onto the whole by becoming her part.

·      The exercise continues until all students have stepped out of the back line.

·      Optional add-ons:

o   Brainstorm the parts of the whole before the exercise begins. This is particularly helpful for English language learners and younger children. It aids in vocabulary building and conceptualization of the final object.

o   Let the audience provide the parts; the students on stage simply embody them.

o   Once the whole is completed, ask the students to put it into sound and motion (for example, a car revving up and moving forward, an elephant roaring and swinging its trunk, a tree rustling and swaying in the breeze, or other ideas).


Teacher: We need any kind of thing to create here. What do you want to see?

Audience member: A computer.

Teacher: OK, we’re going to make a computer.

Davis: I’m the computer.

Teacher: Which part?

Davis: The computer part.

Teacher: The monitor, where you see the picture?

Davis: Yeah.

Teacher: OK, Davis, be the monitor.

(Davis stands as the monitor, hands at sides.)

Teacher: What shape is that computer screen? Can you show us?

(Davis makes a square shape with his arms.)

Kara: I’m the keyboard.

(She sits on the floor and sticks her hands out, mimes typing.)

Teacher: Are you the keyboard, or the person typing at the keyboard?

Kara: Oh! I’m the keyboard.

(She lays down flat on the floor.)

Samara: I’ll be the mouse.

(She sits on the floor next to Kara.)

Jim: All the parts are taken, now.

Teacher: We have the monitor, the keyboard, the mouse; what else can be part of this computer?

(Students left on the back line are blank.)

Teacher: Can some of the parts have parts?

Jim: Oh! I ’ll be the screensaver!

(He stands behind the square Davis made with his arms and wiggles his hands.)

Teacher: Great! What else?

Side Coaching:

“Work together!”

“Show us what that looks like!”

“What part is connected to what we already see?”

“What ’ s missing?”


It might take a while before students are comfortable physicalizing the parts.

As they grow more secure with the exercise and each other, they have more fun embodying the parts. Their work also becomes more specific.

If students are really struggling with the concept of physicalizing the parts, jump in and model physicalization for them; then step out and let them do it for themselves.

To learn more about using creative play, kinesthetic activities and using improv games in the classroom, see the book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom.

Creativity and Improvisation in the Classroom: Resources!

The mindset regarding creativity in the classroom is changing. This year, I am receiving many more requests on providing professional development for improvisation as a tool for teaching and learning.  Throughout my professional life, I have always been interested in the role of creativity in the development of literacy skills and content knowledge. Yet, when my late sister, Mary Scruggs and I developed the work that is featured in our co-authored book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, we were often asked how this work would prepare students for “the test”.  It was frustrating. Creative thinking and problem solving prepares students for EVERYTHING, including taking “the test”.

I am relieved that there is renewed interest in creativity in the classroom. Just in the past couple of weeks, I have taught teachers at Miami Country Day, Logan School, NM, and Berkeley County Schools, SC. Here are some resources to get started with improvisation in the classroom.


Improv in the Classroom with Dr. Katherine McKnight
Rachel from EF Explore America asks Katie about her views on experiential education and improv in the classroom. This blog post if the first in a series of three. (13 November 2013)

Incorporating Improv in the Classroom
This is the second post in the series. In it, Britt from EF Explore America asks Katie about how she got started using improv in the classroom and why it is so beneficial. (15 November 2013)

Build a Lesson Plan Using Improv in the Classroom
Britt from EF Explore America discusses improv in the classroom with Katie. This blog posts links to two downloadable excerpts from Katie’s book The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. (18 November 2013)

Remembering to Laugh and Explore: Improvisational Activities for Literacy Teaching in Urban Classrooms
In this article, published by International Journal of Education & the Arts, Dr. Katherine McKnight and co-author Katy Smith focus on The Second City Educational Program (TSCEP). This outreach program pushes back against factors that have constrained arts instruction and integration while recognizing that schools have limited resources. Available for PDF download. (25 March 2009)

Flipped Learning #60: Improv in the Classroom with Katie McKnight
This podcast from the Flipped Learning Network Show finds Katie and Troy Cockrum discussing how teachers can use improv games in their instructions, how to use it to meet Common Core State Standards, and how to build classroom community. (17 September 2013)

The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning by Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs
The Second City, that groundbreaking school for improvisational performance, has also trained thousands of educators and students through its improvisation for Creative Pedagogy program, which uses improv exercises to teach a wide variety of content areas and boost skills that are crucial for student learning: listening, teamwork, communication, idea-generation, vocabulary, and more. The scores of ready-to-use exercises offered in this book can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects – including language arts, math, science, and social studies – as well as to build classroom community and develop cooperative learning skills. All of the lessons are linked to current national standards for the United States and Canada, and have been proven particularly effective with kinesthetic learners and students with attention difficulties. Available at booksellers nationwide or directly from the publisher.