Social Circus


Over the last 17 years, AYCO has learned about the power of circus arts to play an effective role in accelerating youth and community development. We call this work Social Circus. We define social circus as a social change intervention that uses the circus arts as a tool for fostering personal and social development of identified “at-risk” individuals. The primary goal of social circus is to help participants achieve personal and social development by nurturing their self-esteem and trust in others, teaching them social skills, inspiring them to become active citizens, and helping them to express their creativity and explore their potential. You can read more about the definition of social circus in this article written by one of our Social Circus Network Members.

Social Circus Network

AYCO has created a national network of social circus programs that offer cost-effective, evidence-based approaches to help people overcome the barriers they face. The mission of the Social Circus Network is to provide pedagogical, capacity-building and professional development support to individuals and organizations pursuing and engaging in social circus work as well as to support the sustainable growth of social circus in the United States.

List of Social Circus Network Members


Research on Social and Emotional Learning in Youth Circus

Youth in social circus programs across the US are making big leaps in the skills they need to lead productive lives, according to a recently completed study commissioned by the American Youth Circus Organization (AYCO) and conducted by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality.

Each Social Circus program in the study is a member of the AYCO Social Circus Network. Each program is carefully designed to meet the needs of participants, and seeks to improve the social and emotional skills that youth need to thrive as adults: knowledge and awareness of emotions; the ability to manage emotions in behavior; the ability to seek help and to help others; and the ability to set and work towards goals.

The Weikart Center conducted the study over nine months and eleven sites, with eight participating organizations. The study showed that youth in these social circus programs made progress in the development of social and emotional skills at the level of other exemplary youth development programs and well ahead of a nonselective group of after school youth programs.

“It’s so refreshing to get unambiguous findings in relation to the group of programs in this study. That almost never happens! Our Center has been working for several years on establishing a benchmark for exemplary programs in building social and emotional skills and it’s particularly gratifying to have uncovered a set of programs that are generally performing at this high standard.” says Charles Smith, Chief Knowledge Officer at the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, about the social circus study results.

The lead funders of the study were the James E. and Diane W. Burke Foundation, and Cirque du Soleil.

Read the study here

Social Circus Initiative

In 2015, AYCO launched a multi-year initiative to support growth in social circus across the USA.

Phase 1 drew to a close in February 2016 and achieved the following objectives:

  • – Provided organizing support for social circus programs within AYCO
  • – Established good practices for social circus programs
  • – Recognized social circus programs that currently employ good practices
  • – Identified needed capacity-building assistance for social circus projects
  • – Created a plan to provide this assistance
  • – Developed materials to help social circus programs to build capacity

Learn more about the initiative here, in a slideshow presented at the AYCO Festival in August 2015.

Phase 2:

The AYCO Social Circus Impact Study launched in October 2016.  This is a research project, conducted by the David P Weikart Center for Youth Program Effectiveness. The study involves 8 Social Circus Network members over the course of one year.  Measurements include observation by external evaluators, assessments by program staff and youth questionnaires.  Results will be available in Q4 2017. The project is jointly funded by Cirque du Soleil, the James E and Diane W Burke Foundation and participating organizations.

The 2016 American Circus Educators conference included a specially designed Social Circus track, based on the needs expressed by Network Members.  We held 15 sessions in this track including:

  • – Three-part series on goal setting, data collection and evaluation
  • – Cultivating individual donors
  • – Panel on Social Circus challenges
  • – Circus and Occupational Therapy
  • – Circus and Accessibility

Cirque du Soleil provided a three-day pre-conference training for Program Directors, focusing on developing systems to support program growth.  This included training in staff and curriculum development.