Actors have to be facile by nature. “My prop isn’t on the table—I’ll have to improvise. My mic is too loud—I’ll adjust my volume.” How does an actor make their performance seem effortless with a myriad of distractions going on at once? The answer is something educators think a lot about: self-regulation and executive function skills (SR/EF).
It’s essential that actors have a strong command over their focus, working memory, planning, empathy, turn-taking, and listening. It comes as no surprise, then, that drama training provides ample opportunities to practice these higher-order thinking skills.
Studies have shown a link between dramatic play games and emotional control in children. In my work as an educator, I use theater training to help all students grow their self-regulation. Research demonstrates that children who have strong self-regulation skills at a young age are more likely to have academic success and greater physical and mental health as adolescents and adults. By practicing these skills through simple games in the classroom, you can support your students academically and improve their chances of fulfillment later in life. Use these games as part of your morning meetings, body breaks, or closing circles. There’s ample opportunity to tie in curriculum as well.
5 Theater Games to Build Executive Function Skills
1. Animal Yoga (for self-control and planning): To play Animal Yoga, start out by naming an emotion and having your students breathe as if they were feeling that way. Research shows that the way we breathe has a direct impact on our emotions. Try out anger, joy, sadness, and calm. Get students’ feedback on how the tempo, rhythm, and breath placement changed with each new emotion. Then, practice some poses like cat, cow, and cobra.
Finally, ask students to develop their very own animal yoga pose and connect it with breath. Whether it’s “dragonfly” or “orca,” kids will relish inventing it and teaching it to the class. Animal Yoga is also a great guided play game since it allows for both adult scaffolding and free choice.
Extend this game by making a class book or card deck of the poses, complete with Polaroids or illustrations. To tie this into the curriculum, use animals you are learning about in life sciences or characters from literature. For group work, have students connect their poses together into a sequenced movement story, which is excellent for planning and memory as well.
2. Telephone (for listening): To play Telephone, students sit in a line, and the first person whispers a sentence to the person next to them. This gets passed around until it reaches the end of the line. The last person says the sentence out loud, and the class observes how it changed or if it stayed the same.
To meld this with your curriculum, have students use a sentence from a book they are reading. They can also invent an alliterative tongue twister, which you can tie to geography terms, spelling words, or even a math phrase. This game is great for listening, since students have to pay close attention to the sentence to get it right, and also for memory, so they can accurately recall it.
3. Alphabet Improv (for inhibition and working memory): To play Alphabet Improv, students make up alternating lines of dialogue with the condition that each word that starts their sentence must be the next letter in the alphabet. The goal is to get from A to Z (or as close as they can to the end of the alphabet), in a certain amount of time, while staying true to an improv scenario. Here’s an example where Student 1 was a parent and Student 2 was a child who lost a pet snake.
Student 1: Amy, how did your pet snake escape your tank?
Student 2: Blame isn’t going to get us anywhere!
Student 1: Can’t you look harder for it?
Student 2: Don’t you think that’s what I’ve been doing?
Student 1: Eeeeewww—I just stepped on something rubbery.
Student 2: For gosh sakes, that’s just my lunch.
Student 1: Get this room cleaned up right now, young lady, and find that snake!!
Student 2: Harold! Haaaaaarold! He’s not here—maybe he’s in the bathroom?
This game is excellent for working memory, since students have to keep track of what letter they are on as they come up with their dialogue. They also have to practice inhibiting the desire to say what would come naturally to ensure that it aligns alphabetically. To tie this with your curriculum, ask students to discuss something relevant to what you are learning, or have them debate a given topic.
4. Feelings Freeze Dance (for impulse control and emotional regulation): To inhibit a dominant response (a key SR/EF skill), play Feelings Freeze Dance with scores or soundtracks and call out a feeling during the freeze. The simple act of stopping mid-motion is a perfect way for kids to practice their impulse control. The scores add in a layer of drama, and the feeling words boost their emotional awareness.
5. This Is a What (for cognitive flexibility): To play This Is a What, students sit in a circle and pass around an object using a simple dialogue. For the sake of the example here, let’s say it’s a whisk.
A: This is a whisk.
B: A what?
A: A whisk.
B: A what?
A: A whisk.
B: Oh a whisk.
After the last line, the “B” person passes the object to the student on their other side, beginning the dialogue again, and so the object travels around the circle. Eventually, more and more objects are introduced, and the group has to speak in rhythm with each other as they pass the items. The goal is to maintain the same pattern even as they may be (simultaneously) talking to each neighbor while they get and give the objects. Students get to practice being adaptive and flexible as they integrate listening, focus, concentration, and memory as more objects get added.