A Three-Ring Circus

A Three-Ring Circus
Hannah Van Buren: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: 2-3 class periods


In the first part of the 19th century, middle-class people began to have a little bit of free time, and as that happened, what we might call leisure time activities became more popular, and public entertainments also began to attract larger numbers of people.   An activity that grew and prospered during the nineteenth century was the circus.  While we don’t know for sure if Hannah Van Buren ever attended a circus, the odds are that she did…and because she had four sons, they probably did, too!


Many students have had the opportunity to attend a circus at some point in their lives, and others have seen movies and television programs about the circus.  In this lesson, students will investigate the history of the circus, from Roman times to today. Students should be able to:

1)    Describe the various meanings of the word "circus" in different eras

2)    Characterize the nature of the circus in different time periods

3)    Explain how the circus evolved over time, and why

3)    Describe how the circus operates today

Materials Required:

Computer and Internet access; Research tools (books, videos, photos, and magazines); PowerPoint or other presentation programs (optional).


After determining how many students have actually attended a circus, invite them to describe the activities occurring in the various rings or above the circus floor.  (If many students have not attended, a video could be viewed.)

Divide the class into four to eight groups.  Each group should research one “era” of circus history: Roman, 18th Century England/Europe; the Traveling American Circus (this has 6 "eras" of its own); and the Ringling/Barnum and Bailey Circus. Provide students with resources for their research, including the websites listed below.  Books and video documentaries about circuses can also help students understand what a circus is all about. 

Students should be encouraged to select one component of a circus and write an essay or design a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation.  Such components might be:  the circus "business," the life of a traveling circus performer, animal training, training for trapeze artists, clowns, ringmaster, daredevils, etc.

Students will present their projects or papers to the class for a class discussion.

Extending the Lesson:

Students might compile a detailed timeline of the growth of the circus, from ancient times to today. 

Students might also build a model of a circus in a time period of their choosing (e.g., a circus maximus).

Sources & Resources:


Fox, Charles Phillip. American  Circus Posters. Dover Publications, 1978.

Jando, Dominique. The Circus Book: 1870-1950. Taschen: 2010.


The Circus in Rome.

The Circus Maximus.

The Circus in 18th Century England/Europe

Phillip Astley

The Circus in America: 1793-1940

The Greatest Show on Earth: Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.