Improvisational Activities

What Recharges Your Battery?

What recharges your battery? Read on to find out what I and a group of older adults discovered.

I periodically like to challenge myself by asking my residents to name one of the dullest topics they can think of. Then I promise to facilitate something creatively engaging. The latest topic, which was suggested by a 97-year-old Assisted Living resident, was battery acid! The duller and weirder, the more fun the challenge for me. As a result, the following insights and exercises occurred:

We learned, first of all, that this topic is more relevant than I would have initially guessed. Relevance, by the way is a crucial component in preparing creative engagement experiences.  Lead-acid batteries are an indispensable part of everyday life as they are used for automobiles, golf carts, forklifts, and marine and uninterruptible power supplies. Lead-acid batteries are especially pertinent to individuals in long-term care settings who rely on oxygen concentrators, powered wheelchairs, personal mobility scooters, and all things power when nature takes over.

Second, I learned that the lead-acid battery has the ability to supply high surge currents. Thus, the perfect catalyst for the Human Wave – remember what those look like at the ballgames, for example? The wave is an illustration of a surge which is a sudden powerful forward or upward movement. So, yes, with the help of some of my coworkers, we helped even the frailest of elders do the wave! We also played Human Surge, in which you squeeze the hand of the person next to you, and then have them squeeze the next person’s hand and so forth until everyone’s hand has been squeezed.

Third, I learned that besides inventing the theoretical principle of lead-acid battery, Gaston Plante’ discovered the first fossils of a prehistoric flightless bird, Gastornis parisiensis (named after him) in Paris. Can you smell the metaphorical potential here?  Thus, I asked for a show of hands from those who feel like a flightless bird, or who feel as if they’ve lost their wings. I then asked what they do to recharge their battery, acknowledging answers verbally and on a dry erase board for visual learners. Here are some of their answers:

-          Drink an energy drink.

-          Take a rest.

-          Keep busy.

-          Keep a smile on my face.

-          Take a time-out with a Pepsi.

-          Eat an energy bar with chocolate.

-          Listen to the music I like.

-          People who know what to say at the right time.

-          My wife.

-          An ice-pack.

-          Coffee.

-          Inspirational reading.

-          Good movies and television shows.

One resident said, “My battery is always charged.”

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“I always try to have a smile, have a good attitude, and say ‘Good morning’ to everyone. Many years ago while working as a CNA, we were told to leave our problems at the door. One of my coworkers entered the building and started complaining. I told her to go back out the door, leave her problems there, and come back in. She did. The administrator noticed and asked what happened. She reported to him that I recharged her batteries.”

Finally, I was introduced to the term, “Swan Song.” A swan song is a person’s final public performance or professional activity before retirement. It’s based on the idea that a swan sings a beautiful song, having not sung much during his lifespan, right before death. Detchko Pavlov’s “swan song” was the publication of his prestigious scientific publication of his book, Lead-Acid Batteries, Science and Technology, Second Edition: A handbook of lead-acid battery technology. So I asked the residents to identify their swan song. I added that if they don’t have one, what might they still wish to complete? For fun, I encouraged them to make one up, using the following template: Before I died, I  ____________. Here are some of their responses:

-          I created a pill to cure all illnesses.

-          I sang in an opera.

-          I had a pre-heavenly visit.

-          I invented knob in my ear to turn age back and make my legs limber. I only did it once.

-          I was the first lady president.

-          I eliminated all hate and pain.

-          I received communion from the Pope at the Basilica.

-          I road on horses on Main Street.

The grand finale was an improvisational story-telling about a swan who sings beautifully just before he breathes his last breath. I invited some of my coworkers to takes turns creating the story, one sentence at a time, each sentence beginning with “And then.” One of my volunteers was assigned to act as the swan who interprets each part of the story through improvisational movement. Here’s how it played out (take note of that fact that one lady wasn’t impressed – haha- you can’t please everyone all the time!):

ME: Ladies and gentlemen, we now present to you The Swan’s Song. Once upon a time there was a lovely swan. She was floating along the water, when all of a sudden a gust of wind knocked her backwards and she got misplaced from the flock and was lost. (Improv volunteer flaps imaginary wings backward)

Improv Volunteer #1: And then the poor scared little swan flew around tried and tried to find her family. She cried and cried. (Volunteer swan pretends to cry)

Improv Volunteer #2: And then she met another swan. And they both started talking. (Volunteer swan moves toward a resident and makes squawking sounds)

Improv Volunteer #3: And then while discussing their lives; they discovered they were long lost friends. So they flew around together, around and around. But they both got lost in a storm.

(Volunteer swan locks arms with the resident and pretends they are flying together while everyone makes storm sounds)

Improv Volunteer #4: And then a big bolt of lightning struck and separated the two swans. (Volunteer swan jolts forward)

ME: And then, the bolt of lightning was so powerful that . . .

(Volunteer swan twirls around and makes loud squawking noises as she lowers herself to the floor and lies down)

SHE (a resident participant who has dementia): That was stupid!

ME:  (trying to ignore what I just heard) And then the swan passed from this life to the next and entered Swan Heaven. And she began singing a new and beautiful swan song that was more beautiful than one can imagine. The end.

In closing, Dean Francis Alfar, a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction said, “One of the best ways to recharge is by simply being in the presence of art. No thoughts, no critiques. Just full-on absorption mode.” Knowing this to be true for myself, I do a weekly photo show for my residents. I leave you with a photo of a swan taken right before I got lost on the grounds of the Nymphenburg Palace in Germany. But that’s another story.  :)

Swan - Photo by Kareen King

Swan - Photo by Kareen King

P.S. I work with organizations that want to create a culture where older adults and their care partners are loved, validated, and creatively engaged. I would love to speak on creative engagement at your next event. Please contact me if you are interested in a keynote concert or workshop and I will send you a list of several compelling topics.


29 Engaging Ideas for September 29th

As promised to the constituents who attended my closing keynote at the KHCA/KCAL Convention, here are 29 creatively engaging ideas that coincide with notable events and birthdays on September 29th!

 By Kareen King

(Events and Births adapted from Wikipedia)

1.      1328 – Joan of Kent, known in history as “The Fair Maid of Kent” and who was called by French chronicler Jean Froissart “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving”, was born (d. 1385).

a.       Using Froissart’s words as a template, make unique declarations about your residents. For example, “Arlene – the cleverest woman of Brookside,” or “Jim – the most patriotic man of Brookside.”

b.      Have improv volunteers act out their own version of “Snow White,” capitalizing on the magic mirror (“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”). For further ideas, look up Magic Mirror Snow White at

2.      1511 Michael Servetus, Spanish theologian, physician, and cartographer was born (d. 1553).

a.      Servetus was a polymath in that he was good at multiple things: mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, geography, anatomy, medicine, pharmacology, jurisprudence (the theory or philosophy of law), translation, poetry, and biblical studies. Ask who’s multi-talented.

b.      Hold a boasting contest with some improv volunteers by determining who has the most talents or areas of expertise. Encourage outlandishness, aka one-upmanship improv.

3.      1518 - Jacopo Comin (“Tintoretto”), an Italian painter, was born (d. 1594).

a.      For his phenomenal energy in painting he was termed Il Furioso. His work is characterized by its muscular figures and dramatic gestures.

b.      Furioso!!!! Dramatic Artist Demonstration: Have an improv volunteer stand behind a large easel or dry erase board and pantomime sweeping artistic movements, flailing dry erase markers, etc. When, finished, have him turn the board or easel around to show his masterpiece.

4.      1571 - Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio, or simply   “Caravaggio”, an Italian painter was born (d. 1610).

a.      Caravaggio vividly expressed crucial moments and scenes, often featuring violent struggles, torture and death. He worked rapidly, with live models, preferring to forego drawings and work directly onto the canvas. His work featured Tenebrism, ("dark, gloomy, and mysterious") where there are violent contrasts of light and dark.

b.      Build upon the “furioso” painting demonstration by adding speed, dark music, and flickering lights.

5.      1640 - Antoine Coysevox, a French sculptor who at the age of seventeen produced a sculpture of considerable merit of the Madonna was born (d. 1720).

a.      Invite improv volunteers to create several human sculptures either as a group or individually to the tune of Lady Madonna by Lennon-McCartney.

6.     1798 - The United States Department of War first established a regular army with the strength of several hundred men.

a.       March while seated to the Official Song of the United States Army, The Army Goes Rolling Along (YouTube:

7.      1789 – The first United States Coungress adjourned. “Congress is the ‘heart and soul’ of our democracy.” – Lee H. Hamilton

a.       Sing, sway, and/or dance to Heart and Soul by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser.

b.       Invite a pianist to play the famous song and/or play the accompaniment and invite “players” to take turns improvising on the right hand. (YouTube:

8.      1810 - Elizabeth Gaskell, English author of Mary Barton, Cranford, North and South, Wives and Daughters, and also a writer of ghost stories was born (d. 1865).

a.      Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of Victorian society, including the very poor. Do a “Status Walks” Improv:

i.      Have improv volunteers walk across the space with various parts of their body leading (i.e. lead with the nose, the chin, the stomach, etc.). Have audience observe how these postures might affect their “status”.

ii.      Tell ghost stories! (Note: Several of Gaskell’s ghost stories are public domain and can be located at

9.      1864 - Alexandra “Xie” Kitchen, English model and favorite photographic subject of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) was born (d. 1925).

a.      The photographic works made by Kitchin and Carroll were often in tableau (a posed picturesque grouping of objects or people) form.

b.      Improv Exercise – Tableaus

i.      Have improv volunteers do quick “scenes,” then freeze. Take photos of each tableau.

10.  1864 – Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish philosopher and author of The Tragic Sense of Life and Abel Sanchez: the History of a Passion, a modern exploration of the Cain and Abel was born (d. 1936).

a.      Creative Quote: “A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age; a man dies of ______________ (being a man).”

11.  1879 - Marius Jacob, a clever French burglar with a sharp sense of humor who was capable of great generosity toward his victims, was born (d. 1954).

a.      Ask for a show of hands who has stolen at least once. Discuss why people steal. Then share the logic of Marius Jacob: “A liquor seller and the boss of a brothel enrich themselves, while a man of genius dies of poverty in a hospital bed. The baker who bakes bread doesn’t get any; the shoemaker who makes thousands of shoes shows his toes; the weaver who makes stocks of clothing doesn’t have any to cover himself with; the bricklayer who builds castles and palaces wants for air in a filthy hovel. Those who produce everything have nothing, and those who produce nothing have everything.” – Marius Jacob, from Why I Was a Burglar

12.  1881 - Ludwig von Mises, Austrian-American economist, sociologist and philosopher and author of his magnum opus, Human Action, was born (d. 1973).

a.      Creative Quote: “The root of evil is not the construction of new, more dreaded weapons. It is _________________ (the spirit of conquest).” – Ludwig von Mises

b.      A magnum opus is a large and important work of art, music, or literature, especially one regarded as the most important work of an artist or writer. Ask the residents to tell of one accomplishment of which they are most proud.

13.  1895 - Clarence Ashley, an American banjo player and singer was born (d. 1967).

a.      When Clarence was very young, he was nicknamed "Tommy Tiddy Waddy" (after a nursery rhyme) by his grandfather Enoch, and thus became known to friends and acquaintances as 'Tom'. As he was raised by the parents of his mother, the name "McCurry" was dropped in favor of "Ashley".

b.      Recite well known nursery rhymes as a group (Jack Sprat, Jack and Jill, Little Jack Horner, Old King Cole, Little Miss Muffet, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Little Boy Blue, etc.)

c.       Nickname Partner Conversation

14.  1895 Joseph Banks Rhine, an American botanist and parapsychologist known as J. B. Rhine, who founded parapsychology as a branch of psychology, was born (d. 1980).

a.      Improv Exercise: “Dr. ESP” (Played like the improv game Dr. Know-it-All) Three players (this number can be varied), sit or stand beside each other. They are only allowed to speak one word at a time. Absurd questions, which can be asked by any of the participants or from a designated interviewer, may be asked since the multiple-headed doctor knows everything. The doctor should rephrase each question and should answer beginning with the same player and in the same order of players each time.

15.  1895 – Roscoe Turner, a record-breaking American aviator who was a three-time winner of the Thompson Trophy air race, and widely recognized by his flamboyant style and his pet lion named Gilmore, was born (d. 1970).

a.      Creative Quote: “There is no excuse for an airplane unless it will ________________ (fly fast).” – Roscoe Turner (for fun, say it flamboyantly, and end with a “roar”)

16.  1897 Herbert Agar, an American journalist and historian and winner of the 1934 Pulitzer Prize for his 1933 book The People's Choice, a critical look at the American presidency, was born (d. 1980).

a.      Creative Quote: "The truth which makes men free is for the most part the truth which ___________ (men prefer not to hear)." – Herbert Agar

b.      Discuss how you feel about the current President. Just kidding. J

17.  1899- László Bíró, a Hungarian inventor who invented the ballpoint pen, was born (d. 1985).

a.      Creative Quote: “I always_______ (write) the same way. I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen in my hand.” – Woody Allen

b.      Ask, “What’s the last thing you wrote with a ballpoint pen?” Or share writing experiences.

18.  1899 – Billy Butlin, the South African-English businessman who founded Butlins, a chain of large affordable holiday camps designed for ordinary British families in the United Kingdom, was born (d. 1980).

a.      Billy Butlin's inspiration for his holiday camp empire came from an unhappy holiday on Barry Island in his youth, when he had been locked out of his bed and breakfast accommodation all day by his landlady which was normal practice at the time. Sing or watch YouTube performance of Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp), a novelty song by Allan Sherman and Lou Busch.

b.      Reminiscence: Share camping stories.

19.  1901 –Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American physicist and the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1and who was dubbed "architect of the nuclear age” and the "architect of the atomic bomb", was born (d. 1954).

a.      Creative Quote: “When asked what characteristics Nobel prize winning physicists had in common, Fermi said, “I cannot think of a single one, not even _____________(intelligence).”

b.      Nobel Prize Quiz: Q: What are the five Nobel prizes? A: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology (Medicine), Literature, and Peace.

20.  1904 Greer Carson, winner of the 1942 Academy Award for Best Actress in Mrs. Miniver and credited by the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest Oscar acceptance speech at five minutes and 30 seconds, prompting the Academy Awards acceptance speech time limit, was born  (d. 1996).

a.      Sing This is the Song that Never Ends and substitute the word “speech” for “song”.

21.  1907 - Gene Autry, an American “singing cowboy” and actor, and the only person to be awarded stars in all five categories on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for film, television, music, radio, and live performance, was born (d. 1998).

a.      Sing Back in the Saddle Again – his signature song.

b.      Have a Christmas sing-along with his memorable Christmas holiday songs, the first of which he wrote: Here Comes Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

22.  1908 Eddie Tolan, the first non-Euro-American to receive the title of the "world's fastest human" after winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters events at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, was born (d. 1967).

a.       Tell and/or act out the Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

23.  1910 Bill Boyd, an American singer and guitarist who recorded Wa Hoo and performed it with Bill Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers, was born (d. 1977).

“Oh, gimme a horse, a great big horse, And gimme a buckaroo,

And let me Wah Hoo! Wah Hoo! Wah Hoo!”

a.    Improv Game: Invite “popcorn-style” expressions that start with “Gimme a ___________!” Then, the audience responds, “Wa Hoo!”

24.  1935 -  Jerry Lee Lewis, American singer-songwriter and pianist was born.

a.      V Dance to Jerry Lee Lewis’ Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire

b.      Maracas to Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On (Or just shake your body and “play guitar”)

25.  1939 - Tommy Boyce, co-writer of (Theme From) the Monkees, was born (d.1994).

a.      Diamond Dance to (Theme From) the Monkees

b.      In the spirit of “Monkey See-Monkey Do” or “Simon Says,” either do Mirror Partners or make sounds and movements which should be mimicked by your audience.

26.  1936 – Hal Trosky, Jr., an American baseball player for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox who batted left-handed and threw right-handed, was born (d. 2012).

a.      Sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame and insert your favorite team.

27.  1948 - Mark Farner, American singer-songwriter and guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad and Terry Knight and the Pack,  was born.

a.      Do a dance “train” to We’re an American Band.

28.  1948 – Bryant Gumbel, an American journalist was born.

a.      Improv: Gibberish Journalism

Have an improv volunteer act as a journalist from a foreign country (have audience make up the name of the country). He is to provide late-breaking news, which you translate for the audience.

29.  1966 – The Chevrolet Camaro, originally named Panther, was introduced.

a.      The Camaro is classified as a “pony car” and a “muscle car”. If possible, watch Dina Shore’s performance of See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.

b.      Creative Quote: Ask the participants to fill in the blank, “I’d like to see _________(name a favorite destination or person) in a Chevrolet Camaro.”

Photo below by Kareen King:

"Furioso!" played by Travis Beaty, a Registered Nurse who blesses the residents and staff at Wellsville Retirement Community with his playful spirit and improvisational talent, showcases his masterpiece. :)

Furioso! - Travis Beatty, a playful nurse who blessed the residents at Wellsville Retirement Community, plays "Furioso" and showcases his masterpiece. :)