Circus Lesson Plan

Please note, this lesson plan was created by as a general guide and is not specific to any particular venue listed on our site.


• The word Circus dates from Roman times when arenas such as the Circus Maximus staged chariot races, gladiatorial contests and mock battles.

• The modern circus was invented in London by trick horse-rider Philip Astley, who opened his Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts in London, in 1768.

• The first American circus was founded by John Bill Ricketts in Philadelphia on April 3, 1793.


Students learn about the history and inner workings of the circus, as well as its role in society.
The first circus held in the US was in 1793, in Philadelphia. During that first season George Washington even attended a performance. Although the circus has been around in the US for over 200 years, the circus actually dates back to Ancient Rome! Those first circus performances included horses, clowns, trapeze artists, and acrobats, which can all be seen in today’s circuses as well. There are considerably less circus companies today because the circus’ popularity declined after World War II and the invention of other forms of entertainment, mainly the television. While sitting under the “Big Top,” consider whether you’d prefer a Sunday morning cartoon or a day at the circus.


• Call ahead or research online for any information about the circus and its performances to share with the students beforehand.

• Discuss with the students what they know about the circus. Who has been before? Who has read books about it? Who has seen pictures of it? Who has seen it on TV or in movies? Then discuss what the students would like to learn about the circus.

Questions to ask staff: What jobs are there at the circus? How do the employees and animals travel? Where do the employees and animals stay?


Describe the arena or tent. What do you see? What props or decorations are present?


Observe the people behind the scenes. What jobs are they doing? When do they perform these jobs?


Opinion: Circus employees travel all over the country, work with wild animals, perform dangerous stunts. Would you like to work in the circus? Why or why not?


Compare what life is like for a circus employee today to what it was like during the height of the circus’ popularity in the early twentieth century.

Challenge: Create a new act for the circus. Describe the act; include who would be in it (performers, animals, etc.), what tricks would be performed, what costumes would be worn, what props would be used.


Discuss the role the circus plays in today’s society. Discuss all the ways that children are exposed to the circus: admission to the circus, books, movies, etc.


Project: Choose a book, children’s or novel, that is about a circus. Analyze how the circus is portrayed. What message is the book trying to convey.


Research the history of the circus.


Social Impact: Discuss the treatment of circus animals, and what have circuses done to improve it. Does the city/state have to license them? Also, circuses used to have sideshows where “freaks, wonders and human curiosities” were on display for people to stare and laugh at. Discuss why and when those types of attractions were dropped from circus shows.