Physical Education 80 years ago

By | February 19, 2017

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Before 1937, Physical Education (PE) classes were not as established as they are now. In fact, few schools had gymnasiums, sports fields, or playgrounds. The evolution of PE is quite an interesting piece of history that was molded by immigration, war and scholarly recommendations.

The development of PE in the United States was influenced by immigrants from Germany, Sweden and England. The Germans were credited for bringing gymnastics. During the Napoleonic wars in 1810, Friedrich Jahn – the father of gymnastics – was determined to create strong and fearless youth who would be able to defend Germany if war broke out again. He took his students outdoors and involved them in rigorous physical activities. Around the same time, the Turner movement came about. Turners were political activists in Germany and many of them fled war and migrated to the US in the early 19th Century. Accustomed to physical activity, they advocated for gymnastics training using side horses and parallel and horizontal bars. The Swedish weren’t as rigorous as the Germans, but they encouraged physical activity using apparatus such as wands and ropes. In essence, they preferred calisthenics, which are essentially rhythmic exercises consisting of either running, standing, grasping or pushing. The English were credited for brining sports. They saw sports and games as a means of promoting moral development through physical activities. The combined contributions from these three countries recognise many PE programs that are in place today.

By the 1820’s the US education system had caught on to the idea of PE (called “Physical Culture” at the time) and they started by teaching gymnastics, proper hygienic practices and overall good health. Students were taught physiology and the importance of baths, soap, and keeping their surroundings clean to prevent disease. The Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts which opened in 1823 was the first to include PE into their curriculum. That same year, Catharine Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary for girls and was credited for being the first American to design an exercise program for children. She focused on calisthenics.

By 1825, Charles Beck became the first formal instructor of PE in the USA and concentrated on gymnastics. Universities also caught on and Harvard started the first college gymnasium in 1826, closely followed by Yale. Instructions in PE remained largely academic, and students were given illustrated books with instructions on gymnastic exercises, Swedish Drills, and Calisthenics. Some books even came with accompanying music to practice the exercises.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, the development of play theory informed much of the PE curriculum. Educational Psychologists such as Edward Thorndike and Stanley G. Hall supported the notion that physical education was vital to the social, emotional, and intellectual development of children. The work of these scholars and others informed policies and educational reforms. PE classes began to encompass play, and sports were largely incorporated in PE curriculums to encourage physical activity. By 1903, the Athletics Association was established to regulate PE standards.

However, during World War I, statistics revealed that over one-third of all recruits in the US military were not physically fit for combat. This triggered a further governmental push for PE throughout the country, so between 1911 and 1925, thirty one states passed physical education laws and regulations. Universities were also making provisions to supply much-needed PE teachers and coaches. The University of Michigan, for example, introduced a four-year course in physical education, athletics, and hygiene in 1921.

Luckily, the importance of physical education was recognised at a relatively early stage and the US can now reap the rewards. These are evident in the exceptional athletes the US has produced.  

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