The Power of Pretend

You might think make-believe is just for kids, but in fact everyone from politicians to scientists uses play to solve problems and deal with conflict. Here’s how to make improvisation— aka improv—work for you.


"Pushing this lawn mower is making me sweat!"

"This bucket of water will cool you off!"

It’s Sunday night in Chappaqua, New York, and Caroline, 18, is barking like a dog. After a friend hooks a pretend leash onto Caroline’s neck, another friend starts petting her. Suddenly, Caroline races off to fetch a pretend ball. Have Caroline and her friends all lost their minds? No, they’re doing improv, a form of theater where there’s no script and you and your scene partners make up the story as you go along.

If you’ve ever done improv, you know it can be very silly—and very fun. But did you know that the skills you learn doing improv are incredibly useful in real life?

“Improv involves listening, reacting, collaborating, and being positive—all important life skills,” says actor Marc Evan Jackson, co-founder of the Detroit Creativity Project, an improv group for kids in Detroit. And studies have shown that practicing improv can reduce social anxiety and feelings of depression in teens and help boost self-esteem.

“My ability to be vulnerable with people has improved a lot,” says Caroline. “And I also have more confidence to try new things.”

Teens aren’t the only ones who can benefit from improv. Many businesses use improv exercises to train employees. It’s also taught in correctional facilities and schools, and there’s even a class for doctors called medical improv, which helps them communicate with patients. So even if you have no intention of ever setting foot on a stage or acting like your favorite pet, improv can come in handy. Read on to learn about five of the key principles of improv and how you can work them into your daily life.

1) Say "Yes, and..."

WHAT IT MEANS: No matter how lame or wacky someone’s idea may be, your job is to accept it and move things forward. Think about it: If a scene partner says to you, “Hello, do you have this in a size medium?” and you say, “Nope, sorry,” the scene is over. But imagine the possibilities if your response is, “Yes, and did you know this coat will make you invisible?”

REAL-LIFE BENEFIT: Starting with an agreement is a great way to work through conflicts and collaborate on a solution. Maybe your friend wants to watch a movie and you want to bake cookies. Saying “Yes, let’s watch a movie, and let’s make cookies too” lets you both get what you want. “You turn the conflict into something interesting as opposed to fighting it,” explains Josie Whittlesey, founder of the Drama Club, which teaches improv to teens who are in juvenile detention or incarcerated. The result should make everyone feel satisfied (and c’mon, who doesn’t like cookies with their movie?).

2) Make Others Look Good

WHAT IT MEANS: There’s no star in improv. “It’s a matter of, ‘We’re all in this together,’ ” explains Jackson. “You’re not trying to make your scene partners slip up, you’re trying to work with them to make the scene as funny as possible.”

REAL-LIFE BENEFIT: Supporting others is a great way to make sure they’ll reciprocate when you need backup. Think about it this way: If you’re in a group and somebody says something awkward, you can help them feel less embarrassed (“That happened to me too!” or “I actually think that’s a good idea!”). Not only will it help normalize the situation, odds are the person will be there for you next time you’re the one feeling foolish.

3) Pay Attention

WHAT IT MEANS: Part of improv is staying in the moment and paying attention—with your eyes and ears—to what everyone else is doing. If you see a scene partner scratch her nose, you might pretend you’re being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. But if you’re thinking only about what you’ll say next, you’ll miss opportunities to develop the scene.

REAL-LIFE BENEFIT: Listening closely to others is a building block of empathy. You might find out the reason someone is acting like a jerk is because there’s trouble at home. Or you might form a bond over a shared experience you didn’t even realize you had. But the only way that can happen is if you are fully present in the moment.

4) Don't Ask, Tell

WHAT IT MEANS: When you’re in an improv scene, you make statements instead of asking questions. So if someone is hissing and screeching, you don’t ask, “Why are you making so much noise?” Instead, you say, “You must be an angry raccoon. Here’s some gum to make you be quiet.” Not only does the statement help develop the scene (what does a raccoon look like chewing gum?), it takes the pressure off the other person to think up all the ideas.

REAL-LIFE BENEFIT: Obviously, you should never be afraid to ask questions, especially when you don’t understand something. But making statements can help you think in terms of solutions instead of problems. For example, instead of asking, “What if it rains on our picnic?,” you can say, “Let’s come up with a backup plan for the picnic in case it rains.” Making statements in relationships also reminds you that you don’t need to ask permission to make a choice. Instead of asking questions (“Is it OK if I don’t go to the party?”), try clearly stating what you want (“I don’t feel comfortable going to the party. Let’s meet up tomorrow instead.”) You’ll be more likely to get your needs met.

5) Failure is Your Friend

WHAT IT MEANS: Improvisational actors create worlds out of nothing, which means no idea is wrong. This frees up the actors to get creative without having to worry about their choices. Even if someone’s idea falls flat in the middle of a scene, the actors don’t stop what they’re doing. They just keep going and try to make the best of the situation.

REAL-LIFE BENEFIT: You’ll be amazed at what you can do if you’re not afraid of messing up. “Failure is not a fatal and lasting condition,” Jackson says, so taking a risk, whether it’s running for student body president or going out for a new sport, is usually worth it. Even if you lose the election or don’t make the team, you’ll benefit from putting yourself out there. “So-called mistakes can be gifts,” says improv teacher Jess Rogers. “What happens after the mistake proves your ability to handle pressure and your adaptability.”

Make It Up!

These games will get you thinking on your feet.

Name Game 

Everyone stands in a circle. One at a time, each person says their name along with a physical gesture. The rest of the group has to mirror what they do. 


Two people take the stage and start a scene. If a player offstage yells “Freeze!,” the action stops and the person who yelled “Freeze,” replaces one of the actors onstage in the same position. Then the scene starts again with a new plot.

Word Association 

In a group or a pair, one person says a word. Then the next person immediately says the first word that comes to mind. The next person follows from that word, and so on. 

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