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Teach Kids About the Circus

Updated on July 20, 2007

What's more fun than a circus? Teaching kids about the circus can be a fun thing to incorporate into a birthday party, home-schooling program, or just to prepare for a trip to the Big Top! Putting on their own circus in the back yard is a delight for parents and kids alike. Get kids interested in the circus a see where their imaginations take them.

A Brief History of the American Circus

A circus is a traveling company of performers, usually including an assortment of acrobats, clowns, and trained animals and held in a big tent. The circus is thought to have begun in ancient Rome, where performers would have awed audiences in an open-air stadium and may have included chariot and horse races, equestrian shows, staged battles, jugglers, acrobats and, of course, trained animals.

The father of the modern circus is Philip Astley who established permanent and traveling circuses in Britain and Europe in the late 18th century. Astley also brought trick horse riding to the circus. Americans P. T. Barnum and William Cameron Coup brought the freakshow to the circus when they launched P. T. Barnum's Museum, Menagerie & Circus, which included an exhibition of animal and human oddities. Coup was also the first to use circus trains for transport of people, animals, and equipment.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the circus in America began to lose popularity. People were becoming more interested in animal rights. "New Circus" was the answer. It's a movement in performing arts that is draws on the historical circus model, but there are typically no animals used. The most notable of these type of circuses is Le Cirque du Soleil.

Learn more about the circus here. [ wikipedia] [amazon]

Run Away to the Circus

There are not many places to learn circus skills in the United States. However, Circus Smirkus puts on a summer camp as well as a winter school. Circus Smirkus also tours during the summer with a group of performers ages 13 to 18. Circus skills are sometimes included in family vacation destinations like Club Med.

Circus Superstitions

Circus culture throughout history has been full of rules and superstitions. Here are just a few:

- When an accident occurs, watch out because 2 more are on the way. Things happen in 3's.

- Whistling in a dressing room is bad luck.

- Circus performers must enter the ring on with the right foot to avoid bad luck.

- Never take a picture of an elephant with its trunk down.

- A circus performer or worker must never sleep in the circus tent.

- No peanuts may be eaten in the dressing room.

- Once a performer's wardrobe trunk is set down backstage, it shouldn't be moved until the circus changes locations.

- In an emergency, circus bands play John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever.

- Peacock feathers in the Big Top bring bad luck.

- For good luck, performers keep a hair from an elephant's tail in their pockets.

Circus Triva - Answers

1. Tent

2. Three

3. Lion tamer

4. Dumbo

5. By train

6. P.T. Barnum

7. Apples

8. Big Top

9. Peanuts

10. Acrobats

11. Tightrope walkers

12. Ringmaster

13. Cotton candy

Circus Trivia - Questions

1. Place where circus performs

2. Number of rings in a traditional circus

3. Person who goes into the lion's cage

4. Famous cartoon elephant

5. How circuses used to travel

6. Who started the "Greatest Show on Earth"?

7. Snack with caramel or candy coating

8. Another name for a circus tent

9. Elephants love these with the shell on

10. People who fly through the air

11. Performers with great balance

12. Person in charge of the circus

13. Sugary spun treat

Common Circus Acts:

- acrobatics

- gymnastics

- tightrope walking

- trapeze

- juggling

- plate spinning

- globe rolling

- clowns

- stunts

- human cannonball

- fire eating, breathing, and dancing

- knife throwing

- magic

- sword swallowing

- strongman

- lion tamers

- trained elephants


Submit a Comment

  • evelynsaenz profile image

    Evelyn Saenz 

    7 years ago from Vermont

    I was just searching for some ideas for including in our summer camp circus week. Thanks for all the suggestions. Nice lists.

    I agree with Yankeedoo, however, that it might be good to add a warning about cruelty to animals.

  • Yankeedoo profile image


    8 years ago

    What a great informative article! My wish is for every child to get to enjoy going to the circus. It is so important to get out the hidden message about circuses though...that a very many of them knowingly promote cruelty to animals (mostly elephants). The Shriners are notorious for this. Trained elephants are so abused and mistreated, I know that all children would not want to see them perform if they knew what it went thru to learn those tricks. Please help to spread the word! Thanks and Happy New Year!!

  • profile image


    11 years ago

    I've done a few circus units with kids of different age groups-always popular! Thanks for sharing.


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