A child who’s happy and confident hanging upside down without a helmet is going to be more active and perhaps more creative than one who’s not allowed to play outside when there’s ice in the schoolyard, Patrice Aubertin thinks.
Aubertin, director of research and teacher training at the École Nationale de Cirque in Montréal, is the principal investigator on a national research project to examine the effects of teaching circus arts in primary school. One of 27 studies supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through its Community and College Social Innovation Fund, the project is looking at the influence of circus arts on physical literacy, creativity and resilience in children in grades 5 and 6.
It’s a crucial age in physical development, just before comparison and competition start turning children off sports they’re not good at, before embarrassment and self-doubt make them shy away from risks. It’s also a time when girls are tending to back off physical activity — a gender gap that circus arts help to reverse, according to earlier research by Aubertin.
While formal sports programs offer many benefits to kids, Aubertin explained, they can be limiting. In particular, they are focused on following rules and doing thing the right way to win. A child may become very good at kicking a soccer ball, but that’s not an experience that opens up a lot of creativity.
“Circus arts allow kids to use activity as a means of expression and the inclusiveness of it permits participation,” Aubertin said in an interview. “It resonates with them. It doesn’t matter if you’re short, tall, skinny or fat, you will find ways to do things in circus arts.”
Social innovation is about finding solutions to social challenges, and the plummeting rates of physical activity are clearly a major challenge for Canadian society. Anything that brings young Canadians the benefits of an active life is a good thing. But earlier research projects by École Nationale de Cirque have suggested that children whose physical education includes circus arts not only have more “physical literacy” — that is, they’re more likely to be active and involved in sports — they’re also more likely to be engaged with other creative endeavours.
Canada, Aubertin notes, wants a population educated to thrive in the 21st century, and for that children need to be armed with innovation, creativity and resilience. “If we look at circus arts, it’s a one-door entrance to many, many different arts,” Aubertin says, referring to work done with the Resilience Research Centre of Children and Youth at Dalhousie University, a partner in the project, which suggests the kind of self-confidence and ability to handle risk that circus arts encourage make children more resilient in facing life’s challenges.
The circus school’s research project will take circus arts to schools in three provinces — Alberta, Manitoba and Québec. In each province, there will be two schools where circus arts are introduced and two control schools, for a total of six across the country. The number of hours per week dedicated to circus will vary.
Funding: Community and College Social Innovation Fund
Partners: Resilience Research Centre, Dalhousie University, Liaison Centre for psychosocial intervention and prevention, Fédération de gymnastique du Québec, Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec, Cirque du Soleil, Concordia University, University of Manitoba, Parkland School Division, University of Alberta