Refugees learn literacy through unique circus program

  • Written by:

Sabine Brix
A new children’s story book illustrated by refugee children who are participants of Westside Circus’ Pages Fly program will be launched at Roxburgh Rise Primary School.
Image: Three to five-year-old participants at Roxburgh Rise Primary School and their families. Photo by Samara Clifford.

A program run by Westside Circus that combines literacy and art to meet the needs of newly-arrived refugee children to Melbourne, is launching a storybook which will coincide with a circus performance showcasing the skills learned by its participants.

Based on a traditional Assyrian Chaldean story, Zengilo and Bengilo is the culmination of two terms worth of work from 3-5 year-old participants from the VICSEG New Futures Assyrian Chaldean Playgroup at Roxburgh Rise Primary School.

Westside’s Pages Fly program – presented in conjunction with VICSEG New Futures and the Hume City Council – stems from a model developed by the company over the past 10 years. The program aims to serve refugee families who have to combat a lack of community resources together with a lack of access to social activities while attempting to meet the social and developmental needs of their children.

Jane Hartnell, Program Manager at Westside Circus, said Pages Fly is a multidisciplinary program that uses physical memory (circus body shapes and movement) to reinforce language memory, while also providing a relaxed social environment for children to learn new words as well as helping to bolster their social and developmental needs.

The process of making Zengilo and Bengilo – a story about a mother goat and her herd – enabled children to develop their vocabulary through the art of storytelling in addition to illustrating the book, while having fun in the process.

‘In the project we said, “Let’s take this story and themes and make our circus activities re-enact those [storytelling] activities”. So we make the learning fun and part of that physical activity, but at the same time we’re repeating words and exploring words,’ Hartnell said.

‘We find that this is a really good way, when we’re going into communities where English is a second language, to start learning more English because we’re saying, “These are shapes that we will all make with our body.

‘We have visual aids that have pictures of the written words and the photograph of the circus shapes,’ Hartnell said of the book-making project. ‘So in this project, we came up with a story that the group wanted to tell – a traditional story from their villages. It has a lot of themes that are very common that we could relate to.’

Although exploring story with performance and circus is not a new concept according to Hartnell, the practice of art is something that she believes distinguishes Pages Fly from other programs.

‘I don’t know of anybody else that is doing a project that integrates circus and art and storytelling,’ she said of the book.

‘I guess we are particularly interested in story and how we can use story to really activate creativity, but we also do a lot of work that works on social inclusion, so we’re also looking at stories that can help us to understand each other and help us feel closer to others in the community.’

Hartnell said the results of the program have already had a profound effect on the participants.

‘We were talking to the mothers about what they think and how their children have changed as a result of the program and they all were saying that the children are more confident; they’re happier; they’re better at concentrating and listening, and better with their physical skills of balance and coordination.

‘They have better social skills, like waiting for others and they’ve learnt new English words. They are the kinds of themes that have come out of this evaluation.’

Zengilo and Bengilo will be launched Thursday 14 December at 10:30am at Roxburgh Rise Primary School, Roxburgh Park.
First published on Tuesday 5 December, 2017