History Of Physical Education Essay

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Evidence of physical education as a discipline can be traced to the early Greeks. The great philosophers of the Greek world posited that the human is composed of body and mind (soul) and that training is required of both. The writings of these philosophers reveal that they believed in the need for organized physical activities for all citizens. Plato claimed that swimming and gymnastics were of great value and that participation in them should be obligatory for all youth, girls as well as boys.

However, the notion that physical activities should be provided for all citizens would be lost in subsequent civilizations as the demand for physical fitness would be reserved for the privileged class in preparation for the elite games they played. A revival in the need for physical education would not occur until after the Reformation. The Reformation marked the beginnings of the desire to provide a common education for all children. It would be within this movement to provide universal education that the discipline of physical education would emerge. This entry looks at these foundations.

Early America

The colonists brought to America this desire to provide a common education for all children. The earliest undertaking for these settlers was often the establishment of schools of some sort. As early as 1647, the Puritans of New England had passed a decree mandating that schools be established for all children. However, not only did physical education have no acknowledged place in education, but the educational spirit influenced by the prevailing Puritan attitudes was hostile not only to play, believing it to be a sin, but to all activities related to play, including sport and even physical exercise.

Yet, a few educational leaders in colonial America, influenced by the Enlightenment writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, urged that schools provide for the physical activity needs of children. Locke had expressed the idea that vigor and discipline of the body were the chief aims of education, while Rousseau proclaimed that physical and intellectual education were intimately bound together. Chief among these early proponents of physical education in America, Benjamin Franklin recommended schools provide activities to engage pupils in games, running, wrestling, and swimming, and he did so as early as 1743 in his Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth.

In his writings on education, Thomas Jefferson also expressed his belief in the necessity of physical exercise as a part of general education, while fellow patriot, Dr. Benjamin Rush articulated a need for physical education in his 1772 sermon, Sermons to Gentlemen Upon Temperance and Exercise. Although the theories regarding the need for physical education inspired many of America’s educational leaders, it would not be until after the War for Independence that exercise and games would come to be seen as necessary for the proper growth of children and that schools should be responsible for the physical as well as the intellectual education of youth.

European Roots

On the eve of the American Revolution, Johann Basedow, an ardent follower of Rousseau, opened a school in Dessau, Germany, in which gymnastics were given a definite place in the school curriculum. This was the first time physical education was included as a part of a school program. Basedow and other European educators would come to have a significant influence on the development of education in the new republic. Molding much of the early thinking on physical education in American educational circles were the works of Johann Friedrich Gutsmith, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (of Germany), Per Henrik Ling (of Sweden), and Franz Nachetegal (of Denmark).

During the 1820s, Charles Follen, Charles Beck, and Francis Lieber, teachers and devoted followers of renowned German physical educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, made their way to America. The arrival of these men marked the beginning of physical education programs in American schools. Under the leadership of these recently arrived German immigrants, Yale, Amherst, and Dartmouth began to offer instruction in gymnastics. In addition, Joseph Cogswell, George Bancroft, Catharine Beecher, and Mary Lyon would establish schools with carefully planned exercise programs patterned after the philosophy of these European educators. Cogswell and Bancroft founded the Round Hill School in 1823, with physical education a regular part of the course of instruction for the first time in America.

Charles Beck was hired to teach physical education at Round Hill in 1827 becoming the first instructor of physical education employed in an American school. At her Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, Miss Mary Lyon developed a system of calisthenics for girls, while Catherine Beecher, the founder of the Hartford Female Seminary and later the Western Female Institute, also developed a program of exercise specifically designed for women.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Horace Mann’s belief that common schools were to be common to all was generally accepted. During this same period, many educational leaders began to advocate that education for health, by means of regular exercise and instruction in hygiene, be a part of the standard curriculum. Concerned about the physical and moral health of newly arriving immigrants and the growing population of those living in towns and cities who lacked physical activity, the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the country began to recommend the beneficial effects of systematic exercise, referred to as gymnastics, for the maintenance of physical as well as spiritual well-being. German gymnastic societies, public gymnasiums, the formation of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in 1844, and the growing participation in sporting activities also influenced the growing interest in physical education. Young men were exhorted by such evangelists as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher to follow the precepts of “muscular Christianity,” and to participate in wholesome exercise. Dr. Dioclesian Lewis, perhaps the most effective of the fitness proponents of this period, sought to call attention to the declining health of many Americans, including women, and arouse an interest in physical culture and the necessity of making it a part of school training.

The Late Nineteenth Century

The poor condition of the soldiers drafted for the Civil War, along with the growing tide of immigration and industrial expansion, gave further impetus to a call for the adoption of physical education in the schools and colleges. The period following the War Between the States brought about a time of great expansion for physical education. While in the first half of the century educational programs were influenced by the gymnastic philosophies of European educationalists, following the war, a new attitude toward physical education began to gain momentum.

The popularity of organized sports, college athletics, the public’s desire for recreational activities, and a changing educational philosophy contributed to a wave of enthusiasm for the expansion of physical education. Physical education programs were being accepted and introduced into the public schools throughout America. In 1866, California, under the leadership of Superintendent John Swett, passed the nation’s first regulation requiring physical education be taught in elementary and secondary schools. Half a dozen states would join California in enacting similar legislation by the early twentieth century.

In 1885, the American Association for Physical Education was formed. Later in 1894, the National Education Association set up a Department of Physical Education within its own organization. Many local and state teachers’ associations also began to organize physical education sections within their organizations. Although it would be well into the early twentieth century before all states would pass such regulations, the social reform movements combined with the growing interest in sports and games created a climate conducive for the expansion of physical education that would follow in the new century.

The Progressive Influence

Yet, it would be birth of the progressive education movement at the turn of the century and the events of World War I that would cement physical education’s place in the public school curriculum. Rather than expecting the child to adjust to school, this new philosophy suggested that education and schooling should adjust to the needs of children. Dr. Thomas D. Wood, a physical educator from Columbia University and ardent supporter of John Dewey, published Health and Education in 1910, in which he argued physical education be organized around sports and activities related to real life.

However, it would be the shocking revelation of the rejection of over 30 percent of the men drafted for the U.S. armed services during World War I that would awaken a national outcry. President Woodrow Wilson, along with general educators and physical educators throughout America, spoke out for the establishment of a real program of physical education in the schools. The Committee for the Promotion of Physical Education in the Public Schools, headed by John Dewey, was organized to push for a model bill for physical education. While there would continue to be debate (which continues today) over the role and aims of physical education in the school curriculum, by the 1930s schools across America were providing comprehensive physical education programs.


  1. Lucas, J. A., & Smith, R. A. (1978). Saga of American sport. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.
  2. Mabel, L. (1983). A history of physical education and sports in the U.S.A. New York: John Wiley.
  3. Pope, S. W. (1997). Patriotic games: Sporting traditions in the American imagination, 1876–1926. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Riess, S. A. (1995). Sport in industrial America, 1850–1920. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.
  5. Spears, B., & Swanson, R. (1988). History of sport and physical education in the United States. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

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