ALEX KIANG IS WISE beyond his years. On rainy days, the five-year-old avoids walking on slippery roads, knowing he might slip, and when his classmates rush for food in the school canteen, he often reminds them to queue up. His father believes his son's sense of danger and self-discipline is thanks to the gymnastics class that he started taking two years ago. 'Gymnastics has taught him what danger and discipline mean. He knows what in daily life can cause injury and when he spots things that carry potential risk, he says, 'be careful, dad',' Ken Kiang says of his son. The benefits of gymnastics don't end there. Kiang says Alex is an extrovert with a lot of confidence and since he took up the sport, he has become even more outgoing and self-assured. This is all illustrated at an acrobatic performance in Tung Chung. Together with 12 fellow students from the Sport Scene gymnastics school, which has several branches in Hong Kong, Alex somersaults skilfully and happily in front of dozens of spectators outside a shopping mall. The children, who are guest performers in the street show, being hosted by Australian circus school, Trix Circus, Arts and Acrobatics, also create a human pyramid for the first time. Helped by an adult trainer, Alex steps nimbly on to the thighs of two other children. The action is completed in a second and he breaks into a grin with a look of satisfaction. 'Gymnastics isn't like other activities such as playing the piano or painting. It makes a kid stronger both mentally and physically,' Kiang says, as he watches his son's feat. Echoing Kiang's view is Rodleigh Stevens, head of Trix Circus, which is based on the Australian Gold Coast. The school is launching a course in Hong Kong next month that focuses on circus acts, skills largely based on gymnastics, and Stevens is in town to extol the benefits of the sport. 'We're introducing a skill to Hong Kong that is unique and special. It carries a lot of side bonuses,' says the professional acrobat. 'You'll be more confident and more focused; you'll develop stronger muscles. It's more than just learning to hang on to a trapeze.'' The course, which begins on August 2, consists of two classes designed for children aged from six to 16. One centres on aerial acrobatics, featuring trapeze art, contortion skills and feats using aerial straps, and is suitable for energetic children who are keen on meeting challenges. The other course, designed for those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the floor, specialises in ground acrobatics - rope walking, hand balancing and juggling, and pyramid building. Although it is only running for a month, the summer course will offer children the same benefits as local gymnastics courses, such as the one Alex attends, Stevens says. 'We are not attempting to make professional circus artists out of Hong Kong children in one summer workshop,' he explains, 'I'm sure any kid who has seen a circus show wonders how it feels to swing on a trapeze or to walk on a wire and we are here to give them the chance to try. That's really just the crawling stage of circus work. More important are the side benefits. A child will be more confident and focused after the course. Once their minds have been stretched by new ideas, no one can take that away from them.' Stevens says a high level of concentration is one of the best things to come out of circus training. '[Practising circus skills] is an alternative form of exercise. The sense of discipline you get from circus training, you can probably get in many other sports,' he says. 'But it is a very concentrated form of discipline where a fluctuation of concentration at the wrong time could mean an accident or injury. 'Students are forced to concentrate at a high level, which may improve many other skills including their intellect. For instance, if a child is having problems with maths and he gets stuck on the same line, the circus skill he has learned should help him concentrate better and solve the problem.' May Kwong Mei-fong, a trainer at Sport Scene, says that while circus skills differ from gymnastics because of their entertainment focus, both disciplines involve intensive physical training and achieving success through repeated failure. 'The incessant practice and failure and then eventual success can make the child more able to tackle problems in general,' Kwong says. 'What makes my students different from other children is their toughness.' But that doesn't mean practising gymnastics is all hard work and no fun. Kwong says children tend to enjoy learning something with their peers and the friendships they forge with fellow students help to create a good atmosphere. She adds that students at her schools often have the chance to show off their skills at competitions and public performances, which gives them the motivation to improve. Stevens' course also gives students recognition of their achievements with a graduation performance in which they demonstrate what they have learned to an audience of family and friends. 'It is very important to give them the chance to show off, which is the integral part of building up their self-confidence,' Kwong says. So is every child capable of gymnastics or circus training? Stevens believes so, but like any kind of activity, they aren't necessarily to everybody's taste. 'In most cases, the children know in the first few minutes of training whether they want to continue doing it or not,' he says. 'There will be children who don't want to participate because they can't perform certain acts. It's not worth our while if they don't want to take part but the child who likes to try is the child who will succeed.' Alex's father couldn't care less whether or not his son will become a successful gymnast. 'I just want him to have fun, which is what he's having now,' he says. As if on cue, the boy runs towards him at the end of his performance. He is still smiling. Trix Circus, Arts and Acrobatics is running its circus course, in English, from August 2-31 at Citygate, Tung Chung, $600-$900 per child. For further information, call 2815 5855. Sport Scene runs gymnastics classes for children aged three to 15 throughout the year. For further information, call 2757 4378.