You’d expect volleyball, football and running the mile in gym class, but what about juggling, plate spinning, or riding a unicycle? For the past 30 years, The National Circus Project has been challenging typical notions of what gym class is by bringing skilled, trained circus artists into schools for performances and week-long workshops. The group has worked with Great Neck kids through the Park District summer camp and the Library.
Every year, the Westbury-based nonprofit goes into approximately 350 public and private schools all over the northeast. Teams of expert circus artists will come into a physical education class for either a day or week-long workshop. Students get a front row seat to a demonstration by experienced performers, as well as hands-on experience with traditional circus skills such as juggling, wire walking and acrobatics. Students in the week-long workshop get to perfect a specific skill and flaunt it in a show for family members at the end of the week.
The National Circus Project allows students of all ages to experience the grandeur of the circus in a very personal way. Executive Director Greg Milstein says that as students engage in these individualized and self-motivating activities, they have the ability to have near-instant success.
“With a student who is normally frustrated or thinks they could never do a circus skill, we create this immediate success and in five minutes they’re juggling or walking on stilts and have this incredible motivational experience,” Milstein says. “And they generalize these feelings of achievement to other areas of their life.”
Milstein says this can be life-changing, as it gives all kids, not just the star athletes, the chance to master a physical technique they may have only seen in movies or on stage.
“Kids that don’t normally participate or excel physically can work at their own pace. And in that individualized moment, those kids tend to excel and go far beyond what you’d expect,” Milstein said. “And instantly they get applause and cheers, and even the shy kids or ones who are the last to get picked on the team get to be the star in the show. It’s so powerful and you get to see how these kids are moved by the experience of getting that positive reinforcement and having the community embrace them.”
Not only does the program give kids confidence as they get the chance to shine, but it brings students together in what Milstein calls “the breakfast club” effect.
“Kids who wouldn’t normally interact with each other are in the same group and the energy and excitement of making this happen brings them together,” he says. “The team building effect is very powerful.”
On any given Friday in the spring, five tri-state area schools will be putting on their own three-ring circus shows. Milstein notes that one of the most common reactions to a student show is surprise from parents and school staff as how a child will change over the course of the program. The shyest kid in school takes center stage as the ringmaster, and a troubled kid works hard and comes to school every day to maintain their place in the performance. “Kids will rise to the occasion,” Milstein says.
Over six million kids have come through the National Circus Project in the last 30 years and Milstein says they’ve started to work with the children of people who have come through the program when they were kids.
“We’re part of the community on Long Island,” Milstein says. “I have adults approach me and tell me how much they enjoyed the experience when they were in school. It’s something they remember.”
Find out more about the National Circus Project at www.nationalcircusproject.com