Fostering Creativity

Improvisation: Never Say 'No' to Creativity

Lessons from E. Paul Torrance, 'Father of Creativity Education'

By Abby Connors | Posted 7/2/13 | Updated 5/10/24

You’ve probably heard of the first rule of comedy improvisation: never say no. No matter what another actor says, accept it as real and move on from there. For instance, if someone says, “Watch out! There’s a dinosaur behind you!” and you say, “That’s impossible. Dinosaurs are extinct,” that stops the scene — and the comedy, and the creativity, cold — there’s nowhere to go from there. But if you respond, “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just my pet dinosaur Fluffy,” or “Quick! Everyone pretend to be inedible!” the other actors can respond to that and keep the scene moving.

There’s another reason to never say no. When someone’s idea is rejected, that person tends to feel… well, rejected. They lose confidence. And playful improvisation can only come from a place of confidence and emotional safety.

The same principle applies when we improvise with young children, whether we’re facilitating storytelling, songwriting, dance, or improvising with musical instruments. When we reject a child’s idea for whatever reason, that child’s self-confidence takes a hit. And the more this happens, the less likely it is that the child will feel comfortable volunteering ideas. This is why E. Paul Torrance, known as the “father of creativity education,” guided teachers to “accept every creative response.” With every experience of acceptance, the child is more likely to generative ideas in the future.

But how does this play out in real life? How do we show this acceptance of creativity in the classroom?

Acceptance of Creativity

  1. However odd or inappropriate-sounding a child’s idea may be, find a way to make it fit in with what you’re doing. If the children are volunteering animals for a song, and a child says “train,” simply accept it, with a “choo-choo here and a choo-choo there.”
  2. What if someone “copies” someone else’s idea? Well, they may feel safer contributing an idea that’s already been accepted. If the other children protest, “We already did that!” casually tell them, “We can do it again. It’s okay.”
  3. What if a child raises her hand, but when you call on her, draws a blank and can’t think of anything? This happens frequently, actually, since children love the attention of being called on and don’t always think ahead to what comes after that. Give her a few moments, then gently ask, “Would you like to think about it for a while, and I’ll get back to you?” Usually, she’ll gratefully agree to this.
  4. Once in a while a child will mischievously contribute a “bad word” or a rude sound. What then? I’m assuming you run a G-rated classroom, so you need to reject it, but please do so casually — making a big deal of it only makes it more of a distraction. You might say, “We only use polite words. Can you think of another idea?”
  5. What if a child goes on and on, monopolizing the activity? Oops! This is one of those situations you need to pre-empt before the activity, explaining that we will each contribute one movement, one word, or whatever. If they still won’t “give up the mike,” gently cut them off by saying something like, “Great ideas, Carson, but now it’s Naveen’s turn.”
  6. Sometimes a child will volunteer an idea that isn’t clear to you. For instance, you may ask for different ways to play maracas, and a child might say, “motorcycle.” Ask him what he thinks it might look like for a maraca to act like a motorcycle. Don’t assume that he wants to just zoom the maraca around on the floor. He might be envisioning using the maraca as handlebars to “steer” the motorcycle. Always be sure you understand a child’s idea before you jump in with your interpretation.
  7. Always say “thank you.” Sharing a creative idea is like sharing a special gift. It’s personal and it can be scary. Remember to acknowledge each child’s creative contribution.

These ideas will help you to “never say no” to children’s creative efforts — and make your classroom a safe, welcoming atmosphere where young imaginations can flourish.

Next: 10 Ways Improvisation Helps Children Learn

©2013 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.