Spontaneous Village is an organization that created a community-building curriculum for refugees that applies a variety of interactive improv games, in a specific order, to create personal connections rapidly among participants.

Project Category:  

Building Community with Displaced People

Project Purpose:  

To help child migrants create social bonds quickly to build community to solve their own problems

Project Leaders:

Brad Fortier, Spontaneous Village Founder, Portland, OR; Mary Tyszkiewicz, Spontaneous Village Evaluator, Washington, D.C.; Lisa Hurst, Spontaneous Village Facilitator, San Antonio, TX

Project Participants:

300 Central American child migrants and their caregivers in short-term foster care at St. PJ’s Children’s Home, San Antonio, TX

Project Duration:

August 2014-April 2015

Project Description:

Spontaneous Village is an organization that created a community-building curriculum for refugees that applies a variety of interactive improv games, in a specific order, to create personal connections rapidly among participants. Brad Fortier, an anthropologist and educator, conceived the model based on the simple notion ‘People who play together, stay together’. With the assistance and expertise of Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz of Heroic Improv and through the generosity of the Field Innovation Team, the Spontaneous Village approach has been successfully piloted with Central American child migrants in August 2014 and April 2015 in the International Program of St. PJ’s Children’s Home in San Antonio, Texas. There are two sides to the curriculum: one for the refugees and one for staff supporting refugees.

The refugee side of the curriculum for Spontaneous Village is grounded in anthropological research that looked into the immediate social needs of refugees. Three distinct phases (two of which were part of the pilot at St PJ’s)move participants into establishing essentials for their social needs: familiarity, routine, trust, and community.

  • Phase One focuses on games that help participants laugh together while sharing  basic information. These games  feature rhythmic activities with low chance of failure plus  sharing of personal preferences, such as favorite food and music. These games were  adapted to help people connect across language barriers, through simple non-verbal games rhythm games using snaps and claps. Laughing together builds community quickly in groups of 16 or fewer people.
  • Phase Two builds on the established familiarity from Phase One by adding more complex collaborative and storytelling games to build trust through shared play. Participants learn how to generate solutions together in small groups using fun and imagination.
  • Phase Three concentrates on using the skills learned in the first two phases to go further into using storytelling theater games to generate and explore ideas about next steps participants could or would face moving forward.

The staff side of the curriculum focuses on helping them lead improv games with the children. The purpose is to have the staff use the games frequently with new refugee groups, so that they can create connections with each other with laughter. The training concentrates on the confidence of the staff to lead the refugees in the games. The staff learns the basic concepts of Spontaneous Village curriculum and how the games help refugees experience listening, noticing, appreciating, and supporting as they join an unknown group. Staff training is hands-on, out-of-the-chair experiential learning coupled with reflection. In the training, repetition and observation are combined to foster confidence by staff in their abilities to lead the games.

Project Benefits:

The benefits to this approach are numerous and is much more than an average arts intervention. The approach is inexpensive, only needing staff training time to transfer the games.  The improv games are time-efficient, needing only three to forty-five minutes to implement with children. The collaborative nature of the interactive games, imagination, group problem-solving, and social skills are practiced and strengthened for both staff and children.  

Here are highlights of what we discovered through the pilots at St PJ’s Children’s Home in San Antonio, Texas in 2014-15.

  1. It built a social bridge between staff and child migrants. This connection tended to generate a higher level of respect on staff and the children.
  2. As the youth created community through shared laughter, the child migrants used the games to solve their own problems.  Staff observed that child migrants used non-verbal improv games in their free time to connect with peers who did not speak Spanish through simple motions and sounds of the games. The games became a way to connect to surmount language barriers between the child migrants.
  3. Staff began reporting to us that some of the youth began asking if they could help new arrivals with their classwork during class time, demonstrating the element of group support without being prompted by staff.
  4. In further discussions with St PJ’s when Spontaneous Village returned with Field Innovation Team and Heroic Improv to do staff training in 2015, St PJ’s administrators remarked at the program’s side effect of capacity building for both youth and staff.


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