Say Yes to Young Artists

Kids are wired for exploration and play. That is their work.

The role of teaching artists is to support young artists in their work, to help them reach their creative and physical potential.

A good circus training space is one where creative outcomes are valued equally to physical outcomes, where the child is respected as a working artist, where the teaching artist has the freedom and confidence to say yes.

Three to seven year olds live in worlds overlaid with the kind of imagination and creativity adult artists strive for.

Let them in to a circus space, and their urge to touch, explore, and play switches into overdrive.

Tissus hang from the roof in a rainbow of colour, crash mats are mountains that need to be conquered, a tightwire is the perfect height to dangle on. It’s a world of infinite potential and creative possibilities.

They brace themselves to launch into it all… and right about then, they can faceplant into a firewall of rules and ‘don’ts’.

“At circus we don’t run in the space.”

“At circus we don’t hang on the tightwire.”

“At circus we don’t swing on the tissu.”

A strong focus on space rules and class structure can stifle young artists’ enthusiasm and imagination.

Kids are wired for exploration and play. That is their work.

The role of teaching artists is to support young artists in their work, to help them reach their creative and physical potential.

For young artists and teaching artists to be successful in this, the space needs to be physically and emotionally safe for everyone. A good training space is one where creative outcomes were valued at an equal level to physical outcomes, where the child is respected as a working artist, where the teaching artist has the freedom and confidence to say yes.

When young artists hear yes from their trainers, they learn that their ideas are valued in the group and in the space. They know they are respected by their trainers and peers, and in turn, they respect others. They learn to say yes to the ideas of others, and to work positively and cooperatively in the group. They learn to set their own challenges, develop autonomy in assessing risks, and have the freedom to approach tasks at their own speed.

Saying yes means being open to young artists repurposing apparatus in unconventional ways. When adult artists do it we call it innovation. When young artists do it, it’s often dismissed as mucking around. Sometimes it’s hard to pause before stepping in to intervene, or to instruct on the ‘correct’ use of the apparatus. Step back and watch. Are they engaging in safe, productive work? Are they being disruptive to others? Are they damaging anything? Or are they in the zone, creating and exploring?

Saying yes means being open to changing (or discarding) lesson plans if your group is pulling in a different direction.

It means questioning whether the space rules have purpose when applied to a particular group or situation. A circus space may have a rule around not swinging on tissus. For a child swinging is a natural and familiar movement. They swing, and learn that the tissu will support them. They experience the sensation of moving through the air, and adrenaline from the speed. They work on body tension, grip, and the dynamics of how their body interacts with this new apparatus and gravity. They are light enough that they aren’t causing damage. And they are having fun.

There’s a saying that you need know the rules before you can break them. With young children, it works better in reverse. Kids need to have a relationship with their body, the apparatus, the space, and their trainers in order to understand, follow and engage with rules.

A group might be fascinated with the tissu and spend a whole session working out different ways to move with it– swinging, wrapping, holding , weaving, pulling, lifting. In the next session they feel physically and emotionally safe on the apparatus, have a connection with their trainer, and are ready for an upside down hold or a star.

If their first interaction with the tissu is being told “we don’t swing on tissus”, young artists can lose confidence in working out how to use things. They start to check some of their creativity in at the door (after all, they have been told it’s not appropriate and can get them told off). They start to be compliant, always looking for permission and direction and approval, or they go the other way and tug against the rules, looking for chances to play.

When you give young artists space to build solid foundations through play and exploration, the transition to more goal orientated skill development happens naturally.

The goal should always be to develop the physical skills while nurturing artistry and creativity. Not to sacrifice one for the other.

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