Running out of steam on a hot summer’s day? Gather your kids or the whole neighborhood and make a backyard circus! Once you help set the basics in motion, kids’ imaginations will bubble with creative ideas and a story line will develop to support a really great show! 

A juggling circus is not only fun, juggling also helps physical development - improving balance, hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and overall fitness. According to Seattle-based educational consultant and movement education specialist Edmund Knighton, juggling has multiple benefits for children, including aiming, catching and throwing, creative thinking, dexterity, discipline, and social interaction. “Through aiming, a child develops the ability to track multiple objects in space,” says Knighton. “Attentional acuity sharpens, as does the duration of focus.” That means that kids not only practice focusing on objects in space, they’re also practicing focusing, period. “It requires discipline to maintain a juggling pattern, and to practice for a few minutes” says Knighton. “Discipline transfers …to academic tasks, chores at home, and artistic disciplines.” Juggling even helps grow the size of areas of the brain controlling vision and movement, according to a 2004 study reported in the journal Nature.

Ready to get your child outside and juggling? Here are some ideas to get you started on a backyard circus to remember! Preparation and practice make perfect, and help everyone get invested in building a successful circus. A day or a week ahead, gather materials for these fun juggling and clowning games.

Juggling

What You Need:

  • tennis balls
  • dry rice or beans
  • sharp-tipped knife
  • kazoos (optional)
What You Do:
Prepare. Most folks have some old, flat tennis balls around. With a sharp knife, slit a 3/4” long opening on one of the ball’s seams. Squeeze both sides of the ball to pucker the slit open, and fill half full with dried beans or rice. When you release your squeeze, the slit disappears, and the ball is ready to juggle. The little added heft helps beginning jugglers feel the ball in their hands (which helps them to catch the ball) and also keeps missed balls from bouncing wildly when they inevitably drop to the ground. 

Practice. Stand with a relaxed posture on both feet with fairly wide stance. Keep the elbows close to the body so the hands are in the same place, more or less, each toss. Start with one ball only, tossing and catching in one hand, alternating hands, and then tossing and catching with a partner. Make sure that the catching hand softens to allow the ball to drop into it. The ball then springs up to create a beautiful arc (if passing between hands) and should get good height on each throw. 

Sing a song or listen to music while tossing and catching to help create and keep a rhythm (and to prepare for a performance). When one ball juggling is mastered, add a second ball, and encourage the jugglers to create new patterns of tossing and catching. For example, if two jugglers are facing one another, a toss can be from one right hand to the other’s left hand (straight across) or right hand to right hand (diagonally across) with lots of variations in pattern and rhythm. Two balls are usually challenging enough for most people, but feel free to add a third or more if the skills are there.

Perform. Each juggler or pair should choose their best or favorite patterns, and practice presenting them to you and each other, with singing or other musical accompaniment. Kazoos are great as you can add toots and change tempos easily.

Clowning

What You Need:

  • costumes
  • wigs
  • makeup
  • silly shoes
What You Do:
Prepare. Go through your closets or storage and collect a bunch of oddball clothes, old shoes, hats, scarves and anything else goofy enough for clown costumes. Don’t forget something for the family dog, if he is willing to wear a bandana at least.

Practice. Clown stunts can be anything from silly walking, running, carrying each other piggy back, wheelbarrow walking, rolling over one another, pretending to lift heavy objects, telling a joke. Add juggling one or two balls with any activity to increase the challenge and hilarity. Help the children set an order of activities or events – best yet is to have a little story unfold.

Perform. Allow the performers access to some makeup or face paint as they don their costumes. “Once upon a time, there were three silly giants,” is a great opener. Anything can happen (and will!) with that!

Grand Finale - Suitcase Relay

What You Need:
Suitcase or backpack, stuffed with silly gear such as oversize clothing, goggles, old eyeglasses, belts, gloves, socks, hats, shoes.

What You Do:
Prepare. Set a racecourse. Whether you have a large or small space, place markers of some sort (chalk marks, sticks) for a start/finish line (racers will finish back at the starting line), and midpoint, where the suitcases lay. You need at least two players or two teams for this race, with a suitcase stuffed equally with silly clothing.

Practice. “Ready, spaghetti, go!” A runner from each team takes off towards his or her suitcase, gets there, and must don one item and run back home. The next (or same, with only two runners) racer takes off and does the same thing, each runner layering a silly wardrobe piece by piece on top of their clothes. They must continue to run, however hindered they may be. The resulting trips, staggers, and even tumbles add to the fun.

Perform. A grand circus finale, best served up with music (kazoos again!) and cheers. Whatever happens, everyone is a winner as each crosses the finish line.

Afterwards have the kids pose for a photo in a final tableau, juggling balls up in the air all at the same time, with arms around each other, or piled upon one another in a pyramid. Serve up a cold treat to wind up the festivities, and laugh together over the funniest moments. It’s a circus to remember!