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My left-field lesson - Become a class clown

Turn lessons into a circus to develop students' physical skills

Turn lessons into a circus to develop students' physical skills

Have you ever tried to inspire 29 children aged 3 and 4 to have a can-do attitude, be confident enough to take risks, learn through trial and error and have fun, all at the same time? At the nursery where I work, at a private South London girls' school, we ran a circus workshop day and it succeeded in ticking every one of those boxes.

Nurturing physical skills is so important at this young age, because children engage with the world primarily through movement and physical sensation. The recent changes to the Early Years Foundation Stage framework in the UK have led to a greater emphasis on the need for younger students to develop skills such as coordination, control, manipulation and movement, to help them to prepare for the next stage of their education.

We found a unique way to promote these skills: by setting up the nursery as a big top and designing a programme of circus-themed activities, which included a session with circus craft experts.

The classroom was transformed into a circus by suspending a colourful parachute across the ceiling, strung with fairy lights. We started with free play, including tight-rope walking (along a line drawn on the ground) and dressing up as clowns, with hats, wigs, noses and glasses. A shop was set up in the role-play area where children could "sell" pretend candy floss and programmes that they had made for the day.

In the morning, the main event was an hour-long session with the experts, who led a workshop on juggling with scarves, plate-spinning and balancing beanbags. The afternoon was spent engaged in a lively range of physical education activities such as acrobatics and stilt-walking (on cups). On a stage in the classroom, students took it in turns to perform the role of ringmaster, announcing the next act or activity.

The circus day proved to be a great way to get the whole school involved. The children had their faces painted by students from the senior school, and later in the day we all watched the junior gym squad show off their acrobatic routines - and tried out tumbling ourselves.

Staff were thrilled to see these very young children maintain such determined focus on the activities throughout the day. They were truly engrossed and engaged with each new task, and the energy they put in was really impressive. They persisted with each activity, and when the (plastic) spinning plates fell off their sticks, they picked them up and tried again and again, determined to master a new skill.

At the end of the day, the children's smiles were wider than the smudged clown grins painted on their faces, and they could not wait to show their parents what they had learned.

We are continuing the circus theme in the nursery for the rest of the term. Each day, the children rush in to be under the big top and staff have noticed that the shy, quiet children in the group are now eager to dress up and act out scenarios, confidently taking on roles in the circus play.

Helen Rightmyer is head of the Early Years Foundation Stage at the Junior School at Streatham and Clapham High School in South London

Top 10 circus resources for younger children

1. Circus subtraction

This differentiated maths game has a circus theme to engage students and comes with a supporting lesson plan.

2. Big top trip

Acquaint your students with all things circus-related without leaving the classroom, using these illustrated stories, flash cards and colouring activities.

3. Count the clowns

These posters help students to count up to 10 with images of circus favourites such as elephants, jugglers and clowns.

4. Quizzical moment

What did "circus" mean in ancient Rome and what does it mean today? Who created the modern circus in 1768? Pose these questions and more in this fun quiz.

5. Trapeze talk

"Talk like a trapeze artist" is not an instruction you will often hear in a classroom, but this resource brings students up to speed with circus vocabulary.

6. Alphabet street

You go to the circus to be entertained, not to be taught the alphabet, but this video from Sesame Street manages to do both.

7. Clowning around

"A giant red nose and wild curly hair" could be one description arising from this activity, which hones creative skills by getting students to describe clowns.

8. Needing navigation

Help a lost clown to find his way around the circus using these differentiated directions worksheets.

9. Juggling act

Children can work on their addition with the help of this juggling-themed worksheet, which asks them to add up three numbers at a time.

10. Circus stories

Give your students the story behind the painted smiles and high-flying acrobatics with this introduction to the history and culture of the circus.

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