Disagreement is the foundation of all improv scenes with toddlers. Accept the reality crafted by them, but do not attempt to add any information of your own. Toddlers have zero respect for your worldview and will be set on immediately changing it.
So if you initiate a scene where you pretend to be former presidents, they will state that you both are race cars, and the staircase is the open road. If you dare to assume the plastic fruit belongs in the play kitchen, you’d be dead wrong; they belong in the bassinet because IT IS NAP TIME. All logic or linear structure is thrown to the wind: TV remotes are phones, phones are werewolves, and shoes are baby seals who love to be tossed into the ceiling fan.
It’s so simple, a toddler could make sense of it.
Say “No, but”
When your planned story arc gets quickly negated, be prepared for your toddler to provide solid narrative alternatives. For example, If you decide to be a doctor, your toddler will tell you that you’re actually a teacher. Then, when you pretend to teach a class, she’ll tell you all the students are puppies. When you try to teach the puppies basic math, your toddler will make you a mermaid, and you’ll suddenly be tasked with solving a mystery involving ice cream or the color yellow.
Always remember that as an establisher of imaginative play you are wrong and your ideas are worthless.
De-heighten tension with pat resolutions
Whether you’re mermaids unraveling a gripping whodunnit or nursing a giant rocking horse back to life, there’s no drama that can’t be walked backward.
TODDLER: Lavender the Bunny is missing!
YOU: Oh no! Let’s get a search party and look for her!
TODDLER: Actually, she’s right here.
YOU: Oh. Okay then.
Making statements during toddler play implies that you are in control of the narrative. This isn’t true. While engaging with your toddler, yield all plot responsibility to them, and ask questions to help them define exactly what’s happening, even if they’re unsure themselves.
Some sample questions:
- “Are all the Legos sisters, or just the red ones?”
- “How will Barbie perform her veterinary duties with her limbs ripped off?”
- “Is it wise for a dragon to run a hair salon?”
- “When you say ‘Mommy,’ are you referring to me, or the pile of blocks with a superhero cape draped over it that you’ve been calling ‘Mommy’ for the past half hour?”
- Is that LOL Doll really going out dressed like that?"
- “I know dragons have sharp talons, but you’re not cutting my hair for real, are you?”
There are lots of mistakes
Loads of ‘em. Pretty much everything you say is in direct conflict with whatever story your toddler wants to create. Just go along with it, and be prepared for all your ideas to be shot down. Because they’re horrible ideas, and you are terrible at the Mermaid Detective Puppy Game.
Don’t listen to your partner
Successful improv involves both partners paying close attention to what the other is saying, both verbally and through nonverbal subtext. Since your toddler only registers about 1/8th of what you say or do, this will result in a complete lack of collaboration. It won’t matter if you hang on their every word; you’ll still have no clue what to say (not that it matters, since all your dialogue will be provided for you by your child).
Take this classic example:
YOU: I think we should bake a cake.
TODDLER: I’m a Queen!
YOU: Does Her Majesty want to bake a cake?
TODDLER: Queens can fly!
YOU: Okay, great! Now we’re flying high in the air.
TODDLER: Snakes can’t fly, Mommy.
YOU: Am… I… a snake?
TODDLER: NO MOMMY. Snakes are scary.
YOU: Agreed. So, are we still flying queens?
TODDLER: (dropping your iPhone in a pot of water) Look at this cake I baked!
Fully commit, then un-commit
Decide on a course of action, then follow it through to its natural conclusion, which will be approximately four seconds later. If you’re the shark from Finding Nemo, get down on that floor and flop around while spewing platitudes in an Australian accent. Then immediately spring back up and start marching around with your tuba, making authentic womp-womp sounds, while your toddler conducts you. Then flip upside-down and spin like the dreidel you so clearly are.
You can be anything, at any moment, all at once, then never again!
Exit with purpose
Know when the game has run its course, and “go check on dinner.” Even if it’s 10 a.m., and you’ve only been a Rainbow Mechanic Superhero for twelve excruciating minutes. Luckily, your toddler can continue the scene with her imaginary friend, a narwhal named JoJo Si-Whal.