Much more than clowning around when circus comes to school

How schools are turning to circus skills to help get pupils active

Children at Nazarene Community Church in Greystones, Co Wicklow, taking a class with Angelica from the Dublin Circus Project. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Children at Nazarene Community Church in Greystones, Co Wicklow, taking a class with Angelica from the Dublin Circus Project. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

It’s Monday morning; time to go to school. You put on your leotard, apply clown makeup to your face, pack your juggling balls and head for class – on stilts, of course.

That’s right – today is the day you put away the maths books, forget about the oral Irish and study a new but also very traditional subject: circus skills.

We’ve often sat in class and dreamed about running away from school and joining a circus. But now the circus is coming to school, and bringing some big-top razzmatazz into the classroom.

Over the past couple of years schools have been inviting circus troupes to come in and teach pupils such skills as juggling, plate-spinning, hula-hoop, diablo, acrobatics, trapeze and tightrope-walking.

There is even talk of putting circus skills on the school curriculum, which means that sometime in the future children could be doing circus skills as part of general physical education.

It’s already happening in Europe and the UK, but when it comes to circus education Ireland is lagging at the back of the parade, says Laura Ivers, chair of the Dublin Circus Project, a non-profit group of circus performers who stage circus events and performances, and also teach circus skills to young people and adults at their training facility in the city centre.

“If you look internationally, for example, France has had circus schools for 60 years, and the UK has had registered circus schools for 15 years, and we don’t have any of that here. That’s what we’re trying to do – increase engagement and get young people to learn younger.”

Catching up

“Ireland is catching up at the moment,” says Ulla Hokkanen, director of Galway Community Circus, a charitable organisation whose mission is to inspire and empower people of all ages and abilities through circus skills.

“In Finland, where I come from, circus would be really embedded in the school curriculum. For example, in September they opened up the first circus secondary school. Next autumn they’re opening up the first circus primary school. And in four years’ time you’ll be able to study circus up to master’s degree level.

“In Wales, the government have just made a huge investment in bringing circus into schools through PE classes. So they’ve realised this is the perfect way to teach physical literacy.”

Galway Community Circus has also been working on a research project, funded by Pobal, into developing a 10-week circus skills course to fit in with the primary school curriculum.

“We did it in collaboration with a special needs school here in Galway, who follow the primary school curriculum, and this is the first time we’ve been able to really plan a programme that’s long-term,” says Hokkanen.

Dublin Circus Project juggles a lot of events around the city, but always welcomes inquiries from schools to teach circus skills in the classroom.

So, what’s so great about learning circus skills apart from the fact that it sounds like a lot of fun? Is there an educational benefit, and could PE classes soon be replaced by circus classes?

You have to train

“I wouldn’t say it’s a substitute for PE, I’d say it’s an addition to it,” says Ivers. “I was never very good at organised, competitive team sports, or fitness for the sake of fitness. However, I find with circus – and I’m now juggling with five balls – you have to train, you have to break it down, you have to do your exercise, and you’d be sweating after it. It’s a high cardio rate just from juggling. And the same with hula hoop.

“And when it comes to aerial and acrobatics, you have to do warm-ups before and stretching afterwards. But it’s still fun, with the added benefit that you’re facing a fear, you’re challenging yourself.

“With aerial you’re going to have to trust someone else, and there is a fear element involved, but you always have people there to spot for you, and once you get that it’s a revelation.

“It’s fun fitness, especially for kids and young people. There are a lot of kids who don’t work well with organised, traditional team sports, but with circus skills like juggling and diablo, they get very active and very into it.”

Parents worried that their children may be roped into performing death-defying stunts can relax: the circus skills are taught in a safe environment, and tightwires are set close to ground level.

No one will be expected to catch their classmate in mid-air, dangle by their little toe from a dizzying height, or get in a cage with a pride of ferocious big cats.

“Our workshops would involve social skills like teamwork, group bonding and group working skills,” says Hokkanen.

Stilt-walking

“They would include games and different aspects of circus: tumbling, acrobatics, balancing, walking on a tightrope, unicycling, stilt-walking, juggling and manipulation skills, so children learn hand-to-eye co-ordination skills.

“It’s all about building confidence, and getting people to try out new things through play. And learn that failure is okay and nothing to be afraid of.”

Both Hokkanen and Ivers find that circus is not a hard sell – schools have been rolling up to ask them to conduct workshops and courses.

“Teachers can can see the benefits for students who have been shy in class or might feel anxious or might have learning difficulties,” says Hokkanen.

“They were amazed at how comfortable they were and how confident they grew during the course, because it’s a very relaxing environment and circus is such a broad art form – there’s really something for everybody.

“Every child finds something that they enjoy doing, or something they feel they’re good at.”

‘The activities... require creativity, communication and co-operation’

When the circus came to New Cross College in Finglas, Dublin, in 2016, transition year class tutor Cathal Byrd knew it would be more than just clowning around.

“We got them to come in and do a circus module with our class, an hour a week for six weeks,” says Byrd. “We thought it would be something interesting, something creative, something new, and that’s what we try to do with transition year, bring in new things, and bring the students out of their comfort zone.

“It worked out really well. The activities were very new to the students - they required a lot of creativity, communication and co-operation. It’s similar to PE – I’m a PE teacher myself. A lot of the things they were doing I remember doing them in my teacher-training.

“It was also very progressive, so week to week it got more challenging, but not so challenging that it affected the confidence of students. It’s non-competitive, and that makes it very inclusive. There was no score-keeping – everyone was equal because they all started from an even keel.”

Byrd would like to see circus skills incorporated into the school curriculum as part of overall physical education.

“I think it makes complete sense. People might not think it would go hand in hand with school work, but in fact a lot of the skills in circus are already embedded in PE teacher-training.

“There’s a culture of football, hurling, rugby. These are the sports that define us as a nation. But there is a whole other side to the PE curriculum. Doing gymnastics or being able to throw and catch a ball, juggle, hop from one leg, these are all fundamental skills.”