On the sunny afternoon of Friday, July 16, six children paraded through the Merry Barn in Edgecomb juggling colorful scarves to the beat of an old-fashioned circus song. Their families watched from their seats with astonished expressions, wondering how their child learned to juggle in less than a week.
That’s part of the magic at Under the Big Top at the Merry Barn, a weeklong circus arts and writing camp co-taught by Stephanie McSherry and Liz Giles-Brown.
“There’s nothing better than watching kids achieve a goal they’ve set their mind to,” said Giles-Brown, a longtime educator, writer, and founder of Learning on the Move, an educational teaching and writing guide that’s built on brain and body smart techniques that enhance learning.
McSherry, longtime educator, literacy consultant, and founder of the Merry Barn Writers’ Retreat and Educational Consulting, shares the same mission as Giles-Brown: to connect kids to their brain and body awareness through purposeful movement and creative expression.
In the spring of 2019, McSherry completed renovations of Edgecomb’s Merry Barn, converting the former working barn and storied dance hall into a literacy center.
One year prior, Giles-Brown retired from her 24-year career as the physical education teacher at South Bristol School. She hoped to focus on her writing, collaborate with educators, and advance Learning on the Move.
When she read about McSherry’s plan to collaborate with passionate educators at the Merry Barn, she jumped on the opportunity.
Though the pandemic delayed their plans to start Under the Big Top at the Merry Barn last year, the educators worked hard to turn the camp into a memorable experience this year.
For one week, inside the Merry Barn and outside in its surrounding field, kids between the ages of 8 and 12 immersed themselves in a variety of circus skills and circus literature, lore, and art.
Every morning the kids spent a small portion of time practicing with each piece of circus arts equipment after an introduction by Giles-Brown. Later in the afternoon, children had free time to practice their skill of choice.
“We slowly introduce new skills to the kids, and offer them the choice to pick it up and carry on,” Giles-Brown said. “There’s no hurry, no deadline. It unfolds naturally for the kids and works best when we give them the free time to practice.”
McSherry led the literacy portion of the camp, introducing campers to topics, genres, and books written about the circus.
But the camp does not just teach the kids to juggle scarves and write poetry, it’s teaches them about how their brain works.
“It’s brain science,” Giles-Brown said. “In the process of learning to juggle scarves in a sequence and revise parts of a poem, the kids are firing up the neurons in their brain, transmitting information to other nerve cells, and wiring a whole new network in the brain.”
The subject can be any activity that involves each camper taking responsibility for part of a sequence, pattern, poem, and eventually learning the whole with a little help from their classmates and educators.
With circus arts in Giles-Brown’s creative wheelhouse and literacy in McSherry’s, the educators said that they’ve been firing up new neurons in their brains, too.
“It’s just as important for kids to see their educators collaborating and learning from each other,” McSherry said.
“We are all powerful engineers in a constant state of becoming, with the ability to wire and rewire our bodies and brains with all that we would most like to know, understand, and be able to do,” Giles-Brown said.
In between balancing feathers on their palms and juggling with flower sticks in the surrounding field, the kids created poems, wordless picture books, and persuasive posters to share with their friends and family members at the circus extravaganza.
“It’s really important for kids to share their work with an audience beyond their teachers. We’re helping them realize the power of words to create changes in the world,” McSherry said.
The campers also gathered for an authors’ tea to share their writing projects with the group.
“Our job, as educators, is to create a community space where children can feel supported and empowered to share their talents,” McSherry said.
Through intentional moments of practice, patience, and self-reflection, McSherry and Giles-Brown can help the campers understand and challenge their self-critical and self-defeating thoughts.
McSherry said Under the Big Top campers have been exceptionally confident with themselves and their ability to help others.
The circus music stopped and the campers quickly prepared for the next portion of the extravaganza to present their poetry, wordless picture books, and posters they have created for the circus using hyperbole and elements of graphic design.
One by one, the campers presented their work with big smiles on their faces.
The music started up again and the campers rotated around the room, performing their unique circus arts tricks in front of the audience.
After taking one big group bow, the children spent time with their family and new friends until it was time to go home.
The next session of Under the Big Top at the Merry Barn will run Aug. 9-11, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The cost of the camp is $200. Financial assistance can be provided to any child wishing to participate.
For more information, go to merrybarn.com or call McSherry at 752-2018.