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posted: 2/12/2012 1:00 AM

Children's Museum exhibit a three-ring circus of fun

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By Samantha Nelson

The circus is a magical place for kids, and now the Chicago Children's Museum is letting them join it.

"We like to always start with what are things that children love to do," said Jennifer Farrington, the museum's president and CEO. "We'd done some circus programming before and knew it really resonated. It's familiar, but very few children get to be a part of it."

At "Circus Zirkus," which runs through Aug. 12, kids can take on a variety of roles in the center ring, or just try tricks in a backstage area.

"Everything is about doing it your way," Farrington said. "You can be the performer, the vendor, the poster maker. There are different children with different learning styles and personalities. The circus would not exist without all the players."

Kids can don a huge selection of costumes, putting on a coat and vest to become a ringmaster or clown around in giant shoes and oversized pants equipped with hidden scarves. A muscle shirt is the perfect costume if they want to show off by lifting a giant dumbbell made of Styrofoam, just one of the many illusions in the exhibit that lets kids perform tricks with ease.

There are slightly indented plates, easy for spinning and a trick ladder suspended by cables to the ceiling that makes it look like kids are precariously balancing. Children less interested in performing can work concession carts, serving ice cream, hot dogs and fries made out of felt. Chalkboards are handy to write information about products or the circus itself, building literacy skills.

"What really appeals is this idea of transformation -- picking your character, picking your skill, practicing," Farrington said. "For other kids, the physicality will be the appeal. There's always a kid who's a bit of a daredevil."

Some tricks are more challenging. There's a giant mat where kids can swing from a trapeze or a child-sized spinning hoop, and a low-to-the-ground tightrope. Kids also can try twirling batons or hula hoops.

There's a guide to juggling to help kids learn to juggle scarves, hoops, balls and pins. Some facilitators have been teaching themselves so they can help the kids. Staff members also have a set of more fragile equipment they can help kids use including stilts and feathers.

Walls are lined with pictures of kids performing in local circus groups to help provide inspiration for the visitors both at the exhibit and beyond.

"We want to inspire families to go home and put on a circus in their kitchen," Farrington said.

Farrington said she's sure that kids will come up with uses for "Circus Zirkus's" props and costumes that the museum staff hasn't anticipated.

"Our visitors always surprise us," she said. "They always bring something to the exhibit we weren't expecting."

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