Series on Games: Proprioception
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
At TrainMovePlay we only play games with kids...and teens... and adults; and small, intimate groups of people who know each other well and large groups just meeting; and to break the ice, let off steam, come into contact, and loads of other reasons. Games serve so many purposes that when we sat down to write one blog post about how and why we use them, it quickly became a whole series of posts! So settle in for a series on games and tasks.
In this post we share some of the games we use most often when we want to awaken proprioception. We provide detailed instructions on how to play them, with notes about the groups and situations in which we find them most useful, and tips for leading them effectively. We'll also include variations to make them more versatile, challenging, or appropriate.
Feel yourself, sense your body, from the inside out.
What is Proprioception?
When you close your eyes, you probably know where your hands and feet are. You can feel them from the inside out. Through a complex network of communications between your brain, neurons in your joints, fluid in your inner ear, and fibers in your muscles and connective tissue, you know, without looking, something about where your limbs are, how your torso is arranged, and your current relationship to gravity. Proprioception is this sense of where your body is. And it is super important for movement. Moving in new ways both tests and builds proprioceptive sense. So, if you know that this sense is lacking in you, movement, especially in all planes, in all relationships to gravity and in unpredictable patterns, can improve it. When we warm up at the beginning of class, we always make sure to include a game or task that warms up the proprioceptive sense, as well as other senses, muscles, and joints.
Instructions for Play:
Start in pairs. One partner is the Caller, while the other in the Follower.
Caller calls a body part, ie Right Hand, and points to a place on the floor somewhere near the follower.
Follower places that body part on that spot on the floor. Continue for a set amount of time, maybe 2-3 minutes, then switch roles.
When and With Whom:
A good warm up at the beginning of class to get the proprioceptive senses awake and to stretch and move in unpredictable or inhabitual patterns.
A nice way to get weight into different body parts, especially if your class will ask for various relationships to the floor later, like a Movement class, Contact Improv class, or Improvisational Dance class.
All ages can play this game.
We usually don't give an instruction about when a body part should come OFF of the floor, but you could. For example, the instruction could be to try to keep as many of the parts on the floor as possible simultaneously. Or the instruction could be to keep only two parts, the current assignment and the last assignment, so that the follower is also working balance.
The instruction could be to use only right and left hands and right and left feet, so that this becomes a quadrapedaling exercise.
It is also fun to get creative with body parts, fx. forearms, tops of the feet, spine, hips, ears, shoulders, and top of the head are all fun tasks to inspire inhabitual movement, proprioceptive training, and play.
The game could travel, so the instruction would be for the caller to assign spots on the floor that cause the follower to move from one side of the room to the other. Then they could switch roles and move back to the starting side.
The game could also work in very small spaces, so each pair gets one puzzle, for example, and the caller must chose spots on the floor that allow the follow to remain inside the bounds of that one mat.
To up the proprioceptive training even further, the follower could close her or his eyes. An adjustment would need to be made by the caller so that instructions are completely verbal, for example, "Right Hand 1/2 meter forward; Left Knee in front of Right Hand..." We have never tried leading a group through this version, but this could def work.
Credit: We first played this game in a handstand class with Mikael Hedegard in the Akroyoga Aarhus Handstand club in Denmark. Thanks, Mikael for a fun and versatile game!
Instructions for Play:
Begin in pairs. Partner A creates a shape with his or her body; any pose that is still and can be held for a few minutes. It is best, especially at first, if the shape has a lot of negative space, ie. "holes" or pickets of air in and around the shape. Think of a puzzle pieces with lots of gaps where other pieces can fit in.
The Partner B then creates a shape that fits into the first shape somehow. The two shapes are not touching, but are intertwined with body parts over, around, under, and through each other.
Partner A now removes her or himself without touching or disturbing Partner B in any way, and then finds a new way to fit into Partner B's shape, as if creating a new puzzle piece to fit with the existing one.
Partners can go back and forth like this, creating and recreating ways of fitting their bodies together without touching. Experiment with new levels, facings, and the distance between body parts.
When and With Whom:
This is an interesting game to play with people who are usually moving, because it requires one to be still enough to let your partner experiment with different ways of fitting together.
Also a good game for people who are not used to being in close contact with other bodies. It gives an introduction to working within another person's personal space without actually touching, so it can be a good intro for a acroyoga or partner movement class.
This game requires a heightened sense of proprioception to see how your body will be able to fit into someone else's shape, so it is great for any group where proprioception is important or lacking and needs to be built up.
Super fun in a family class because the adults can have a difficult time fitting into those tiny little kid shapes!
A fabulous progression is to turn this into a round robin - style game. Begin as above by working in pairs until participants get the hang of it. Then ask that Partner A hold their shape while Partner B steps away. Partner B finds a new Partner A to work with. And now partners can switch every time they make a new shape so it becomes a very interactive game where all participants are working together but the shapes or puzzles are always made up of only two bodies.
Another progression is to create one big group puzzle. Begin sitting or standing in a circle. One person steps into the middle and creates a shape to become Puzzle Piece A. A second person steps in and creates an interlocking piece, as above, and becomes Puzzle Piece B. A third person steps in a creates a shape that works with Puzzle Piece A, Puzzle Piece B or both! This is Puzzle Piece C. This continues until all participants are part of one giant puzzle together. This could be the end of the game, or...
From the one giant group puzzle, if you know who was piece A, B, C, etc. you can try taking the puzzle apart in the same order, so Puzzle Piece A leaves the group first. Remember to do it without touching or disturbing any of the other pieces! Then piece B, then C, etc. Or....
From the one giant group puzzle, you can let the puzzle become an evolving work of art. Any puzzle piece can leave, create and new shape, and re-enter the puzzle interlocking with new pieces at any time. This kind of continuous re-organizing becomes a bit like a contact improv game but with the contact. We call it, Non-contact contact improv.
Instructions for Play:
In groups of two, Partner A closes her or his eyes and Partner B creates a shape with her or his body. This can be any shape, like a yoga pose, a gesture with meaning, or an abstract shape - any way of standing, squatting, lying, etc. that partner B can hold for around 3 minutes without moving or changing.
Now Partner A, with eyes still closed, explores Partner B's shape using only touch. Hands should roam over Partner B's shape enough to get a strong idea of how exactly Partner B is arranged.
Next, Partner A, with eyes STILL closed, recreates Partner B's shape.
Finally, Partner A opens eyes and the two partners compare their shapes. The object is for Partner A to recreate Partner B's shape as closely as possible, down to every detail, like how fingers are held, rotation of neck and angle of head, etc.
Switch roles and repeat the whole process.
When and With Whom:
An excellent way to get into the mindset of noticing the details of how our bodies are arranged, this game is really perfect for any level of acroyoga, a family yoga class, a creative movement group, etc.
This game is especially good for an acroyoga workshop where the participants are not regular yoga practitioners, because it heightens that proprioceptive sense so well. One huge benefit of warming up proprioception is that, later on in the workshop, the instructor can use more question-based cuing to help guide the practitioner to use proprioception for self-correction, for example, "Can you feel where your feet are in relation to your hips? What happens if you try moving your feet so they are stacked more directly over your hips?"
Rather than groups of two, where one partner is creating a shape and the other is exploring and recreating, you can have groups of four, where two people create a partner shape (could be an acro shape, or it could be anything, as long as they are connected or touching somehow.) The other two partners explore and recreate as above AND they have to keep eyes closed throughout the exploration and recreation!
WARNING: this gets exponentially more difficult with more bodies! We had an uneven number of participants in one workshop and decided to make one group of six - three shape-builders and three explorers. It took sooooo long for that group to complete the task because there were so many variables with which to contend. We don't recommend groups larger than four people unless your group has played this game several times already OR you plan to spend an hour on just this task! It is a great cooperation exercise, but is definitely more difficult with more bodies.
It is good to have a couple of shepherds around - teaching assistants or others with their eyes open who are helping to guide the explorers and spot the recreations.
Credit: We first played the simple version of this game in a beginners' acroyoga class with Emil Sørensen in Denmark.
Sculptor and the Clay
Instructions for Play:
In groups of two, one partner becomes the "Clay" by squatting and curling into a little ball shape on the floor and the other partner becomes the "Sculptor."
The Sculptor begins to unfold, fold, twist, bend, stretch, and move the Clay into a shape. The Clay should try to accommodate the Sculptor by allowing her or his body to be arranged and rearranged and also maintaining the changes, until the Sculptor is happy with her or his creation.
Once the Sculptor is happy, and maybe the instructor has taken a photo of the beautiful sculpture?, the Clay can dissolve back into a little ball on the floor because all things are impermanent.
Switch roles and play again.
When and With Whom:
This game works at the beginning, middle, and end of a session for different purposes. At the beginning of a session, it can work as a great warm up for the proprioceptive sense. For example, before a parkour session or improv jam, this game can help us connect brain and body and awaken to how much effort it takes to maintain and also to change a body shape.
In the middle of a long session, especially a very kinetic session, like maybe a long dance intensive, this can be a quieting game that helps us tune in to the more internal sensations of small, careful movements.
At the end of a movement session, this can serve either as a meditative closing or as a fun and funny closing, depending on how the instructor sets it up. For example, if you ask that participants not talk, or that the Clays close their eyes or soften their gaze, it can be very relaxing to allow the body to be moved by someone else and just to feel the internal sense of the movement without exerting any effort. However, if the instructor gives specifically funny instructions to the Sculptors, such as, "Create a sculpture that expresses how you felt the first time you flew today," then you might get some humorous shapes.
As mentioned above, you can tailor this game to different parts of the class, different moods, and different purposes by giving more or fewer instructions about what kind of sculpture to create.
In a beginner's yoga series, you could use this game as a review by asking participants to create sculptures of the yoga poses they learned in the previous class. In a movement class, you could ask them to create a sculpture that demonstrates their favorite/least favorite/most challenging part of a flow so that it becomes a feedback tool and gives the instructor an idea of where to go in the next class.
We use this game to build proprioception because the Clay must be mindful of maintaining one part of the sculpture while still allowing other parts to continue to be manipulated, i.e. one arm must stay held high over head while the knees bend and straighten to form the Sculptor's vision. However, there are many skills at work here: There is a steady stream of non-verbal communication as the Clay is responding to tactile cues and the Sculptor is giving tactile cues. There is an element of sensitivity training as the Sculptor discovers how to use enough force to arrange the Clay while being respectful of her or his partner, etc.
In creative movement classes for kids, we use this game to explore the four basic body shapes: round, straight, angle, and spiral as well as symmetry and asymmetry.
If numbers are uneven, one Sculptor can easily work with two or more balls of Clay.
Before the Clays dissolve into balls again, it can be nice to have all of the Sculptors rotate one partner so that instead of beginning with a ball of Clay they begin with someone else's creation. The instruction could then be to change only one piece of the sculpture, or to rearrange it entirely. This is also a nice way for each Sculptor to touch each Clay so that the participants make physical contact with lots of people. This variation could act as an Ice-Breaker game, too.
There will be a Quick Reference Guide to all of our games included as the final post in this Series on Games, so check there for an alphabetized list of all of our best games.
Whether we are leading a yoga, movement, Acroyoga or other type of class, and no matter the size or demographic of the group in front of us, games are useful tools. We would love to hear some feedback from you about how you use these and other games in your movement classes and experiences.
Which games do you love?
Which ones of your favorites did we leave out?
How have you adapted our ideas?
Be well and have fun, friends!