Circus and Physical Literacy

By Lynn

photos by John Warburton, 2014

“Learning to move is as important as learning to read and write”

Hearing this was for me a real light bulb moment. We are physical beings, movement is good for us; for our health, wellbeing, and social life. If children learn to move, they are more likely to continue physical activity in adulthood. This is essential in these times when 58% of the population in Wales is overweight or obese

I was in Tampere, Finland at a research seminar called ‘Culture has an impact’, for four days of discussion on the impact of culture, mainly circus on different age groups.

Among the speakers were Patrice Aubertin, Director of Teacher Training and Research Chair at Ecole National du Cirque in Montreal, and Dr Dean Kriellaars, sports scientist and advocate for Physical Literacy. These two experts had recently joined forces to research the effectiveness of circus skills as a tool for physical literacy. It was early days, but it was clear that their knowledge and passion for their subject was going to produce some interesting results. After hearing them speak, we all left inspired; we were convinced that this research was going to give circus the recognition it deserved as an holistic activity which can encourage a broad spectrum of people to live happy, healthy and creative lives.


“Physical literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” (Whitehead, 2016)

Physical Literacy was a term first introduced in 1993 by an English philosopher, Margaret Whitehead. It has since become an international movement, with some countries, including Wales, investing in national programmes to promote it. Wales has an Institute for Physical Literacy operating out of University of Wales Trinity St David’s.

In March 2015 we brought Dean and Patrice over from Canada to present at the first CircusWorks conference, which took place at NoFit State’s home in Cardiff. They arrived with the results of a research project they had conducted across 6 schools in Canada; 3 schools practiced circus skills as part of their physical education curriculum, 3 had a normal sport based curriculum. The results showed:

Children with circus instruction in Grade 5 have improved (relative to control schools)

  • Upper body manipulation skills (catch & throw)
  • Lower body manipulation skills (kick and dribble)
  • Lower body movement skills (hop, skip, etc)
  • Locomotor skills (running, cutting)
  • Body control skills
  • Balance
  • There is a reduced gender gap in circus schools
  • Increased confidence to move (18 skills)
  • Increased number of movement skills that they are competent in


  • Children in circus equate the importance of movement to literacy and numeracy at school!
  • Children in circus value reading and writing more at school, at home for girls, and a trend toward importance with friends.
  • Female children in circus valued math more than females in non-circus setting. In fact in circus schools they valued it equivalent to males.

Children in circus (Self reported)

  • Feel they are talented
  • Are more eager and motivated to participate, especially females.
  • Accept the importance of learning new movements
  • Feel they comprehend movement terminology. 

Coaches/teachers report children in circus as having higher

  • Confidence, motivation, comprehension, and diverse movements

We all know that circus works wonders for the children we teach. But we now have hard evidence that proves this! Dean and Patrice have secured another 3 years of funding to expand on this research.

While in Cardiff, Dean showed this data to the Director of Physical Literacy for Wales, Nalda Wainwright. This led to NoFit State providing a series of workshops for PE teachers to teach them how to teach circus, following by some in school support for circus sessions leading to a show with five schools, plus parental engagement sessions.

The PE teachers reported this was the best professional development they had ever done!


So, what’s next?

  • From September 2016 NoFit State will be working with 2 classes on a transition project with Bishops Gore School in Swansea, where the children will practice circus skills every day. At the end of the first half term they will do a show, and deliver workshops to other children in the school.
  • We have been invited by University of Perugia in Italy, to be part of a joint bid to develop a BA in Physical Education that includes circus arts. The project will involve circus organisations working in partnership with universities. NoFit State will be working with Trinity St Davids. Other partners will  include Ecole National du Cirque in Montreal and Cirkus In Beweging, Belgium


Physical Literacy is a journey not a destination, but if there ever was a destination it is Circus  (Dr Dean Kriellaars, Twitter 2015)

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