Improv Activities

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These activities can be used in any class to support development of mathematical argumentation.

It is important to establish norms for both improv and argumentation. Improv prepares student for argumentation: for example, to build on the ideas of others in unexpected ways.

Warm-up games such as the ones included in this library are a fun and low-risk way for all students to become familiar with the norms of mathematical argumentation.

First Letter, Last Letter

Players stand in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else.

  • The teacher calls out a category, such as “animals.”
  • The person who receives the ball repeats the word “tiger” and then throws the ball to another player with a new word, starting with the last letter of the first word: in our example, “rabbit,” for “r.”
  • The third person catches the word “rabbit” and then sends a new word starting with the letter “t”: for example, “toad.”
  • The game continues until all players have had a chance to catch a word and say a new word.
  • If a player repeats a word that has been said, the group can decide if that deserves a circus bow or whether repeating words is allowed.

Variations: For large classes, make two or more smaller groups and follow the same rules.

Off the shelf

  • Players stand facing a partner.
  • Players take turns reaching up to an imaginary shelf.
  • Without thinking too much, players say what imaginary item they pulled off the shelf.

Gift Giving

  • Players stand in pairs, facing each other.
  • One player takes an imaginary gift from an imaginary closet and, through handing it over to a partner, indicates its approximate size and weight with gestures.
  • The partner takes the gift, unwraps it, and says what it is.
  • The first player, upon hearing what the gift is, explains why he or she got that gift for the partner
  • Players exchange roles and play again.

Pattern Game

  • Players stand in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else.
  • The teacher states a pattern to repeat, for example, AABB. In this example, the first and second people are A, the third and fourth are B, and the fifth starts with A again.
  • Then, a player starts the pattern with a movement or a sound that others can follow, for example, saying, “Yay!” This is the first element, A, in the pattern.
  • In the case of AABB, the second player will do the same thing that the first player did, repeating A (“Yay!”). Then the third player will make a new movement or sound for the group to follow, for example, waving. This is the second element, B, in the pattern. The fourth player repeats element B (waving). The fifth player starts with element A (“Yay!”) again, and the pattern repeats.
  • Players go around the room following the pattern until it is the teacher’s turn again.
  • The teacher sets a new pattern (ABC, or AAB, or ABBC), and the whole process starts again. The new pattern should start at a different place in the circle to ensure that multiple players get a chance to create, not just follow.

Story Spine

Write on chart paper so that the whole class can see the following sentence starters:

Once upon a time . . .
Every day . . .
But one day . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Until finally . . .
Ever since that day . . .
The moral of the story is . . .
  • Players stand in a circle. One player begins by reading the first sentence starter and finishing it as a single, complete sentence. (It should not be a run-on sentence.)
  • The next player then reads the next sentence starter and finishes that sentence in order to start making a story.
  • After eight people, the story has been told and the ninth person adds a moral to the story that sums up the main theme.
  • The class should play two or three times, continuing around the circle until all students have had a chance to make a sentence.

Variation: The first time, we recommend playing this with the whole class, even if not all students get to participate. You can discuss the norms about listening to each other and speaking loudly enough for others to hear.

Magic Clay

This clay is all pretend!
Everyone stands in a circle and is able to see everyone else.

  • The first player grabs a piece of imaginary clay from a pile in the center of the group and molds it into something (for example, an umbrella, a kitty cat, a ring, or a basketball). The teacher can do this first and be very obvious so that the group can see what he or she is doing and recognize the thing he or she is making.
  • Players should be able to guess what the clay has become. If players cannot guess, this is an opportunity to state that one of the norms of this game is to be very obvious.
  • When the first player is done, she or he passes the clay to another player, who must make something new out of it. The class guesses again.
    Keep passing the clay until most have taken a turn.

Hint: Players can grab more clay from the pile to make a larger piece or take chunks away from the clay they receive to make it a smaller piece.
Variation: For large classes, arrange smaller groups of players.

Word at a Time

Players stand in a circle. The goal is to make a sentence collectively.

  • The first player starts the sentence by saying one word.
  • The next player adds another word that would make sense given the first word, and players continue adding words until a sentence has emerged.
  • When the end of the sentence is evident, the last player says, “Period.”

Zip, Zap, Zop

  • Players stand in a circle so that everyone can see everyone else.
  • The players throw an imaginary ball to one another within the circle, saying “zip,” “zap,” or “zop” (one with each throw, in that order, repeating the sequence until the game is over).
  • The first player starts by throwing a “zip” to someone else in the circle.
  • The catcher then becomes the thrower and throws the “zap” to someone else in the circle.
  • Players continue, in any order, until most have had a turn.

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