• Article
  • November 19, 2018

Improv Therapy Helps Pediatric Patients Laugh

Improv helps patients escape the reality of their illnesses.

Kelly Rinehart still vividly recalls the spectacle. As a teacher and a performer herself, Rinehart has seen her share of great improv performances, but these two artists really had it going.

The game was an improv staple called Categories, where contestants take turns listing items from a chosen category until they can't any longer. The two finalists had their audience clapping and cheering enthusiastically with each volley. The performance was so riveting that you could almost forget its special circumstances—the players were critically ill students at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford school.

"The teachers started gathering around, the kids were cheering," says Rinehart, a teaching artist with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. "The list just kept going and going; it was epic."

The Children's Healing Project

The unforgettable improv performance was part of The Children's Healing Project, a collaboration between TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Packard Children's. The program began in 2003 to integrate theatre-based therapeutic arts, specifically improve, into the school curriculum at the hospital.

The teaching artists lead improv sessions for about 10 to 20 patients per week during the school year. The sessions occur in group settings, although the teaching artists make bedside visits for those unable to join the group session. For the critically and chronically ill children enrolled in the hospital school, improv provides an opportunity to escape the reality of their illness, if even for an hour a week. It provides a rare chance to play and collaborate with their fellow patients, and for some it's a gateway to healing through increased confidence and self-expression.

"It's fun to see kids who are quiet and potentially uncomfortable when we start … to really begin to let their personality out through the different activities," Rinehart says. "They show their wit, the way they think and the way they view the world."

The power of "yes, and"

Rinehart says the characteristics of improv make it a perfect activity for the children, and it begins with the concept of "yes, and." "Yes, and" is the cornerstone of improv; the base concept that a participant accepts what another participant has stated ("yes") and then expand on that line of thinking ("and.") For the patients at Packard Children's, "yes, and" means:

  • There are no wrong answers; participants can say whatever they want. "Kids don't always get to do that, especially in a hospital," Rinehart says.
  • A unique, fun interaction with their doctors, nurses and parents when most interactions with adults focus only on their health.
  • The children have control; the game can be whatever they want it to be.

Sometimes the children steer the activities in surprising directions. Rinehart says part of what made that memorable Categories game so "epic" was the grouping the patients themselves selected: medications.

"It was amazing because I would have brought up any other topic first," Rinehart says. "But for them, it was something that they could all relate to and could talk about in a way that was fun and a kind of release instead of a serious topic."

Anecdotal evidence supports improv's benefits

There isn't much research available to pinpoint the positive effects of improv therapy. But Rinehart sees it firsthand. She sees the improvement in the kids' demeanor and attitude after an improv session, and she says nurses and parents routinely tell her about the significant impact the program has on the children.

And she has a mountain of anecdotal evidence. One of her favorites: she once overheard a young boy describe the improv class to a new patient by saying, "They make you smile and laugh when you're feeling blue."

"It's little things like that that tell you this is connecting for kids," Rinehart says. "Even if they can't put their finger exactly on what it is, it does make a difference."

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