Physical Education

Physical education (sometimes referred to as GYMNASTICS or physical training) has a long tradition. National interests, cultural values, and much more have affected the attention it has received. In the Republic PLATO set forth two branches of education: music (that over which the Muses preside) for the mind; gymnastics for the body. Balanced development of the two–as well as harmonious development of the body—was the desired goal. Physical education has also retained strong connections with classical ideas regarding HYGIENE and preventative medicine. Since the late 1800s, efforts have been made to incorporate knowledge from physiology, psychology, and other disciplines into its practice.

In the eighteenth century a remarkable number of treatises were written in which exercise appropriate to children's age and sex was declared an essential part of their education. JOHN LOCKE's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), which opens with the dictum mens sana en corpore sano, was frequently cited. Physician Jean Charles Desessertz's Traité de l'Éducation Corporelle des Enfants en Bas Âge (1760), who some suggest influenced JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, would have boys engage in activities like running, jumping, shuffle-board, swimming, and fencing. Desessertz and the Comtesse de Genlis (Leçons d'Une Gouvernante à ses Éleves, 1791) were among many who declared that girls should receive much more exercise than their education typically provided. JO-HANN BASEDOW's Philanthropium (1774) set aside three hours a day for recreation. JOHANN CHRISTOPH FRIEDRICHGUTSMUTHS (called by some the grandfather of modern physical education) had a major impact on developments in the nineteenth century.

During the 1800s formalized programs of calisthenics and gymnastics, each with its particular motives and style, developed in various European countries. The usual form of exercise in the state-aided schools of England was gymnastics/calisthenics. Games-playing (with its presumed potential for developing character) dominated at public schools like Harrow and Rugby and the grammar schools that sought to emulate them. In 1826, the same year that gymnastics (Turnen) was introduced at the Round Hill School, the American Journal of Education included an article titled "Physical Education" that declared: "The time we hope is near, when there will be no literary institution unprovided with proper means of healthful exercise and innocent recreation." Antebellum health reformers repeatedly urged parents and teachers to attend to the laws of growth, health, and exercise. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal and numerous educational publications did likewise. Catharine Beecher's popular Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families (1856) included chapters on the circulatory and other systems of the body and described (with illustrations) schoolroom exercises for girls and boys.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century "physical training" was dominated by biomedical interests. Nine of the first ten presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education (1885) were physicians. In his opening remarks at the 1889 Boston Conference on Physical Training U.S. Commissioner of Education William T. Harris referred to the importance of exercise and commented on its benefits. The conference was devoted mostly to discussing the several gymnastic systems (such as the German, Swedish, and American systems) then in vogue; sport was barely mentioned.

In the twentieth century games, SPORTS, and dance increasingly replaced formal gymnastic/calisthenic systems as the focus of the curriculum. Young people found games more appealing, and INTERSCHOLASTIC ATHLETICS (for boys) were gaining prominence. Most important from a pedagogical standpoint, proponents of PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION were emphasizing the importance of PLAY and games in psychosocial as well as physical development. The Pedagogical Seminary, which G. STANLEY HALL initiated in 1893, published many articles like LUTHER GULICK's "Psychological, Pedagogical, and Religious Aspects of Group Games." As did numerous other leaders of the emerging field of physical education, Gulick made important contributions to the YMCA, the Playground Association of America (1906), and other organizations that worked with children. In 1903 he established the New York City Public School Athletic League, which served as a model for similar organizations across the country. The focus of these was educational athletics, that is, sports for large numbers of boys and girls organized around developmental principles, not highly competitive athletics for the few.

Although they may seem similar, physical education and interscholastic/intercollegiate athletics differ in their goals and other significant ways. (The distinction was set down by Plato more than two thousand years ago.) Articles published in the American Physical Education Review (later called the ResearchQuarterly for Exercise and Sport) in the early 1900s reflect the nature of concerns that have been repeated since then. By 1920, education through the physical was rapidly replacing education of the physical as the dominant ideology in physical education. Through the contributions of individuals like Dr. Thomas Denison Wood, physical education retained connections with health education, which emerged as a separate field following World War I. Thomas Storey, the nation's first State Director of Physical Education (New York in 1916), was among many who believed that the goals of school hygiene and physical education (which put textbook information into practice) were identical as the object of both was health. Similar views were expanded upon in School Program in Physical Education (1922), prepared for the N.E.A.'s Commission on the Revision of Elementary Education. Physical Education in the Elementary School (1951), published by the California State Department of Education, is an example of other extensive works that have provided teachers with information and described hundreds of games, rhythmic, and other activities adjusted for grades one through eight.

In the late 1800s research focused upon posture and studying physical growth by means of anthropometric measures. During the 1920s attention was directed to measuring physical efficiency (such as strength and coordination). Motor Performance During Adolescence (1940), published by the Society for Research in Child Development, launched important work in motor development. Following the enactment in 1975 of PL–142, physical educators produced important studies involving children with disabilities. After the 1970s the volume of research relevant to physical activity, children, and youth expanded enormously across several disciplines. Studies of children's anxiety in sport that appear in publications like the Journal of Sport Psychology may reflect growing tendencies for some youngsters to participate in highly organized competitive programs.

During the 1960s the daily high school physical education requirements that most states had enacted declined, in part due to the initiation of more elective subjects, which required flexible scheduling. The Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, created in 1955, reported in 1976 that fewer than forty percent of public school students participated in daily lessons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Guidelines for School and Community Programs" (1997) point out that in spite of extensive evidence from PEDIATRICS, epidemiology, physiology, and other fields confirming its importance, large numbers of children and adolescents do not engage in regular physical activity. Other countries are reporting similar findings. The inactivity brought about by the attraction of TELEVISION and other electronic media is one reason for the decline. In addition, the attraction of high performance sports, in which relatively few children and youth participate, has drawn attention away (unintentionally) from the broad-based curricular and after-school intramural programs that physical educators once insisted form the basis of the schools' offerings.

See also: Baseball; Basketball; Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; Playground Movement; Title IX and Girls' Sports.


Dauer, Victor P., and Robert P. Pangrazi. 1983. Physical Education for Elementary School Children. Minneapolis: Burges Publishing Company.

Gerber, Ellen W. 1971. Innovators and Institutions in Physical Education. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger.

Hackensmith, Charles W. 1966. History of Physical Education. New York: Harper and Row.

Haley, Bruce 1978. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Massengale, John D. and Richard A. Swanson, ed. 1997. The History of Exercise and Sport Science. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997. "Guidelines for School and Community Programs to Promote Lifelong Physical Activity Among Young People." Journal of School Health 67: 202–219.

Van Dalen, Deobold, and Bruce L. Bennett. 1971. A World History of Physical Education, Cultural, Philosophical, Comparative. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Dance. Available from