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Carolyn O'Grady finds out how to bring the world of the fairground into your classroom

Roll up! Roll up! Investigate the hall of mirrors, test the probability of winning at a slot machine, discover how a carousel works and explore gravity on the helterskelter. It's all the fun of the fair at Pleasurelands, a touring exhibition now at the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield and soon to travel to Croydon and Edinburgh.

All the fun of the fair encompasses a lot, as this exhibition shows. Most aspects of popular entertainment were found - often for the first time - at the fairground. Your first sight of moving pictures - and many other 19th-century inventions, including steam power and electric lighting - would have been at the fair.

However, it's the carousel which to most people represents the fairground best, and the first sight to greet the visitor is a hall full of "gallopers", carousel horses and ark animals. Although nothing moves, the collection conjures up that psychedelic mass of colour, bright lights and speed which we associate with the fair.

But it wasn't always like that. Springing from the markets which were granted charters between the 12th and the 14th centuries, most of the first fairs sold merchandise. It was in the first half of the 19th century that they reached their heyday as places of entertainment, and it was shows, not rides, that then dominated the fairground.

These included trailer-mounted variety and wild beast shows, Wild West extravaganzas, displays of magic, and boxing shows, all of which remained the principal social entertainments until seen off by the increasingly sophisticated tastes of the audience. Then rides began to take over, boosted by steam power and electricity.

It wasn't all done by mirrors, but that cliche wasn't far off the mark as regards many of the old shows. In one section, children are asked to work out how a ghostly presence appears in a popular show called Pepper's Ghost.

The answer involves inclined glass and lighting. The headless wonder was also done by mirrors, but flea circuses were for real, though there may have been some jiggery pokery with wires.

You could also try your hand at gambling. Slot machines and semi-skilled games such as the clown's stall, in which you had to throw a ball into the clown's mouth, were - and still are - very popular. The machines were usually set to allow a certain number of wins, and children are encouraged to work out the probability of winning in those on display.

Freak shows, as they were called, were the most common exhibits at travelling fairs: sometimes involving animals, sometimes people. They too could be an illusion: Jo Jo, the Dog Faced Boy, was really a monkey. But Siamese twins, "Lilliputian wonders" and the "Elephant Man" were real.

Often, they were placed within a narrative: Leonine, a lady with features resembling a lion, became the Lion Faced Lady, ran the story, because her mother saw her father eaten alive by lions.

In the education pack, children are asked for their views on the morality of exhibiting people in this way and on disability and diversity in society today.

Fairs also present an illustration of an unusual lifestyle. Oral and visual recordings of show families give a firsthand account of their lives, work and education.

Just as fairs have incorporated new technology, the lifestyles of the people who run them have changed, though remaining fundamentally a life spent on the move.

Over the years, fairs have thrived on the strange, magical and exciting, but for the people who run them it's normal life. As one says: "It's our bread and butter, it's what we've been brought up to do".

The exhibition is at the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, until January 18.

It will be at Croydon Clocktower, April 24 to September 5, the City Arts Centre, Edinburgh, October 9 to January 17, 2005. A teacher's CD-Rom is available with ideas on what to do in the exhibition and follow-up activities. Aimed at key stage 2, activities can be adapted for key stages 1 and 3Pleasurelands is the book of the exhibition by Vanessa Toulmin (The Projection Box, pound;10)


Art DT IT Research the art used in fairground rides on the internet.

Design a motif that reflects contemporary interests, eg, incorporate icons of modern music or films. Design a galloper or other ride.

Citizenship Research what it's like to be a travelling showman or woman.

Think about the advantages and disadvantages. How would it differ from pupils' own lives?

English Write an acrostic and shape poem about fairground rides. Create a poster using persuasive language advertising the fair.

Maths Pupils can design a game of chance and set up a sideshow in the classroom. Work out the probability of winning.

Science Mirrors: ask pupils to investigate what materials give a clear reflection. Explain convex and concave surfaces. Ask them to draw their reflection as shown in everyday objects, eg a kettle or both sides of a spoon.

Websites a US trade site with images and information a European site in five languages with activities (still under construction) uk explains how mechanical components work. Buy or download free paper toys and automata the National Fairground Archive supplies tin toys that demonstrate a number of forces in action

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