I’ve taught juggling for many years and have learned a lot about improvising when things don’t go according to plan. Problems have run the gambit from having twice as many kids as I planned for, to children showing me the “trick” of using diabolo string to strangle one another. The challenge that vexed me the most was that children typically don’t acquire the motor skills necessary for the cascade until roughly six or seven years old. Little kids would arrive at my class wide-eyed with the magic of juggling and eager to learn, only to watch the older kids progress while they struggled again and again with the first step. They usually expressed their frustration by finding other ways to amuse themselves, more often than not disruptive to the rest of the class. My attention would then be split between maintaining order and hopefully still passing on some appreciation of juggling. The saddest part for me was watching the youngest kids leave with the impression that they had failed and that juggling was no fun at all. My heart went out to the little guys, so my juggling partner and I began to divide and conquer. Whenever we encountered a large spectrum of ages in a workshop he would work with the older kids while I set out to learn what I could about how to make juggling fun for the little ones. Those pre-school and early elementary kids taught me a lot through trial and error, and I would like to share what I have learned.
For starters, young children have an easier time processing only one instruction at a time. If you are describing a three part process you would not say, “Pick-up a juggling ball, find a partner, and sit down.” Instead you would first ask them to pick-up a juggling ball. When everyone has completed that task, then state your next instruction.
Kids in this under 6 age range have really short attention spans. It’s therefore helpful to have a collection of activities to pick and choose from as you go, rather than a structured plan for “5 minutes of this and 10 minutes of that”. When they start to lose interest in one activity it’s time to move on to another one. I find it’s most effective to also vary the type of activity, so I’ve organized the activities below into 3 categories: object manipulation exercises, games, and demonstrations.
I. OBJECT MANIPULATION
Alternative manipulation props like diabolos, flower sticks, spinning plates, and peacock feathers (for balancing) are good things to have on hand, as they are easier for young kids than toss juggling. As far as traditional props go, I don’t usually let the youngest kids try clubs or rings, as there is more potential for a child to get hurt.
When working with juggling balls, I like to start by demonstrating cool things that I can do with one ball, i.e. body rolls, a pirouette under a high throw, balancing on my elbow. I explain that any time you move an object around in an interesting way that is a kind of juggling. Typically I say something like, “I bet you didn’t know all of you can already juggle!” The manipulation exercises listed below are in the order that I prefer to introduce them. However, they work in any order or combination, and often work best when alternated with games and demonstrations.
We build some confidence by handing one ball back and forth, first in front of the body, then behind the head or under the legs.
Little kids tend to be intrigued by ball placements because they are so easy: holding a ball under the chin, in the crook of the knee, squeezed between the forearm and the bicep, or on the back of the hand. Remember to show them one move at a time, let them work on it, and then show them another one.
After they have worked on hand-offs and placements I demonstrate how cool even such simple things can look by handing a ball around my own body while varying my speed, moving around, and pausing in different placements. Then I reinforce the fact that I was only doing the things they had already learned how to do.
There are lots of one ball exercises, depending on their level of coordination, i.e.: rolling a ball on the floor from one hand to the other, throwing it low or high, seeing how many times they can clap under a high throw, throwing one under an arm or leg, etc.
You may have kids who want to make up their own moves or combinations of moves. After they work on the move(s) for a few minutes, give any kid who wants to share their trick or combo the opportunity to do so. Make sure they volunteer rather than requiring anyone to show their trick; some will share, some won’t, but often at this age they are eager to show-off. Every kid gets a round of applause after sharing. If the other kids seem interested in learning one of the new tricks, let them spend some time doing so.
At some point during the manipulation activities I like to demonstrate how many jugglers learn even the most complicated tricks by practicing with only one ball and building on that throw. For example, I might show a back cross with one ball, then juggle a cascade with only one ball doing backcrosses, then a full backcross pattern. If some of them are too young to understand the explanation they will still enjoy watching the tricks. I ask for a show of hands if anyone plays a sport or a musical instrument, or wants to learn how. I explain that everything you do to strengthen your coordination will make you better at other coordination-based skills. Their ears always perk-up when I tell them that many professional sports teams teach their players how to juggle for this very reason. I tell them that they can solve any kind of problem the same way they would learn a juggling pattern: by starting at the beginning and breaking the problem down into smaller, more manageable parts.
-One ball red light/green light. They can only move if they are throwing, and if they drop they can just pick-up and start where they left off.
-One ball Simon Says. I simplify things by always being Simon. Before the game I explain the rules. I have them do each of the moves that Simon might “say” in order to gauge which tricks they are most comfortable with and to ensure that everyone knows what’s going on. Begin the game with stuff everyone can do, so everyone has fun. I throw in non-juggling moves like “walk in a circle” or “hop on one foot”. I think they have more fun if dropping does not make them “out.” Don’t let the game go on too long because when kids are “out” it doesn’t take long for them to start wandering off and coming up with shenanigans. If the game is down to just a few people, start adding more difficult moves (like combinations of moves, i.e. jumping on one leg then throwing and catching the ball). Play several rounds so the kids who went out early have another chance to play.
-One ball relay race. Divide the children into teams and arrange them into two staggered lines (like a “W” feed) about four or five ft. apart, facing each other. The ball starts at one end and is thrown underhand between the two lines, making its way towards the finish line in a zig zag pattern. After the child throws she runs to the end of her line, ready to catch the ball again and continue the pattern. Make sure they run behind the other children, so they don’t get in the way of the ball. It’s helpful to do a practice round or two at a slow speed before starting the race. For easier catching, have the children practice passing the ball with a good peak or arc.
-Solo floor juggling: Demonstrate how a three ball cascade can be juggled in the air or rolled on the ground. They can roll one ball between their hands or exchange two balls. Variations include rolling two balls at the same time, staggering, etc.
-Partner floor juggling: Demonstrate this activity with one of the kids before having them all try it themselves. Have the kids partner-up and sit on the floor facing each other with their feet touching, then they exchange two balls by rolling them across the floor. I’ve seen some surprisingly young kids learn a rolled three ball cascade between two of them. They can even “juggle” four or six balls by doing multiplex rolls. For multiplexes, have one child split the balls to roll near the sides of their legs, while the other child rolls her balls together down the middle. Shower patterns can also be done between partners by rolling the balls in a continuous circle along the insides of the legs. In one workshop, I had two six-year-old girls rolling a 9 ball triplexed shower between them. Partner floor juggling usually gives the little ones a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
-Group floor juggling: Bring all the children together in a circle with their feet touching the feet of the child next to them. Start with one or two balls rolled among the group, and add more as you go so the excitement increases as the game progresses.
When in doubt, juggle for them. Demonstrations provide nice pacing for their attention spans in between other activities. Demos can also be a helpful way to restore order as they bring everyone together to sit down and calmly enjoy something they are all more or less mesmerized by.
On a final note, I’ve found that many of the activities that work for younger kids also work for children with special needs. These activities have contributed enormously to the success of my workshops, and I hope they will do the same for you! If you have any questions please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also love to hear from you if you have any other juggling or manipulation activities for kids in this age range!
Photo by Gretchen Cleve.