All Circus; No Rules

 Step one: Take 14 kids aged four to seven who are trying circus for the first time.

Step two: Put them in a space filled with tightwires, trapezes, tissus, juggling gear, hula hoops, trampolines and crash mats.

Step three: Don’t tell them what to do.

In most youth circus workshops, the activities and timelines are dictated by adults. What happens when you switch this up, take away the rules, and give total ownership of the space to the kids?

This was a three hour program for four to seven year olds, who were all new to circus. The kids and trainers were all meeting for the first time. There was no parent involvement in the class.

The challenge was to design a program that maximised autonomy, teamwork, creativity and play,  provided opportunity for risk taking and testing limits while keeping everyone physically and emotionally safe.

PART I: Conversation

The goal was to make sure everyone was heard and seen, and felt recognised as individuals.  Caregivers sat within earshot. Some kids chose to hang back and sit on laps, some on the floor close to the trainers.

The conversation gave a solid connection to home and self so they had a firm foundation to jump off into the day.

Where is your bag? Where is your drink bottle? Did you bring a lunch box? Did you pack any special circus treats? Who was so excited about today that you couldn’t go to sleep last night? Did anyone wake up super early because you were excited about coming to circus? I woke up early because I was so excited to meet you all!

The next part of the conversation put circus into context with their lives, and set the kids up as experts at using their bodies. It gave them confidence to take on the challenges to come.

I bet you are already good at lots of things we do in circus. Who is already good at jumping? Who loves to do running? Who can already balance on a balance bike? Who can balance on one leg? Who loves climbing? Who loves dancing? You guys are going to be awesome at circus.

We introduced the equipment we could see… and the trainers as experts in climbing, jumping, swinging, and circus. People who were there to help them if they needed a hand with tricks.

We talked for around twenty minutes… not rushing the process. Giving everyone time to be comfortable, get excited, be engaged with the trainers, and ready to leave the big people behind and start on their adventure.

Part II: Get into it

Then, we gave them their first circus challenge.

Run into the space and touch as many things as you can.

This broke two of the rules young people often get given at the beginning of circus workshops.

They were already connected, so they moved as a group. This made it easy to step in to spot as needed.

Touching turned into climbing on the big tramp and hanging off the tight wire. We patted soft mats and hard floors with our hands and feet. Swung across a gap in two crash mats on tissus. We stacked crash mats up and jumped off them, shouting.

Our next circus challenges focused on team work. Games of hot lava using mats and blocks strewn across the floor. Moving crash mats with everyone helping. Squeezing everyone into tiny spaces. Getting used to touching each other and working together.

I gave them their one rule for the day: “You have to look after your circus team”. We defined team to include themselves, all the other kids, and their trainers.

The team discovered blocks and beams and mats and tramps. They built and explored a huge obstacle course.

We gave them a choice: did they want to keep the obstacle course up all day, or pack it away? They chose to keep it up. This would be their space that they could come back to it at any time. They didn’t need to ask. It was an instruction-free, time out space for the kids.

Part III: Risk Assessment

Is there anything in the space you want a trainer to help you learn tricks on? Put a red ribbon on it so the trainers know they need to come and help you.

The kids ran around the space and put ribbons on all the things they thought they would like help with – big tramp, tightwire, trapeze, unicycles, teeterboard.

Once the ribbons were up, the conversation switched from the usual trainer led: “You need a trainer to help you on that,” to the child led: “The red ribbon means I need you to help me on this.” They waited next to the tagged equipment. Or went and found trainers to ask for help.

Part IV: The Zone

The group stayed together for most of the session. Kids headed to the obstacle course, or their bags to sit and snack and watch when they needed to. The class moved organically through the space. Participants were focused and in the zone.

Trainers worked at saying yes to offers the kids made, and guiding rather than instructing.

The only behavioural corrections through the day happened through reminders and questions.

Are you looking after your circus team? How many people do you think we should have on the mini tramp at one time?

Part V: The End

Three hours of workshop, and no tears, no injuries, no icepacks.

With the kids setting the pace, and without trainer time wasted on behaviour management we covered more  than in any of the previous, adult-led workshops.

Result: 14 very happy, very tired circus kids.

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