Physical Education In American Schools Essay

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Like sport and education in general, physical education responds to and reproduces broader social values. As such, it is an important topic for those interested in the history of schooling, as well as policy issues in education. This entry looks at the history of physical education in schools from the colonial era to the twenty-first century.

Early Practice

Before and after European settlement, Native Americans played lacrosse and many other games. European colonists’ early schooling slighted physical development, despite the exercise recommendations in John Locke’s important Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693). Scattered beginnings of the inclusion of physical education, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s 1751 Philadelphia Academy, preceded independence.

Schools in the new nation gradually included exercise. Some boys’ teachers instituted military drill, although Congress declined to require it after the War of 1812. German-style gymnastics won brief fame in schools during the 1820s. Round Hill School (1823–1834), an elite boys’ academy in Northampton, Massachusetts, secured a German teacher and apparatus and added swimming, running, archery, and vigorous outdoor play to its curriculum. Other boys’ schools in the 1820s to 1840s tried gymnastics, agricultural labor, and fencing.

Girls’ educators, led by Catharine Beecher at the Hartford Female Seminary, developed “calisthenics” (from Greek words for “beauty” and “strength”), which incorporated slow ballet movements and wand exercises rather than masculine gymnastics. Mount Holyoke Seminary (1837) and others embraced calisthenics; more simply required girls to walk, weather permitting.

European Influences

Further innovations came from overseas. Among German immigrants after 1848 were thousands of gymnastics’ enthusiasts or “turners.” Their athletic clubs (turnverein) at first appealed mostly to Germans—by 1860, the national Turnerbund had 10,000 members—but a turner normal school, founded in 1861, helped broaden the sport. Boarding schools rediscovered the athletically rich Round Hill model, starting with St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 1856. Around then, Boston, Cincinnati, Hartford, and San Francisco required exercise in public schools.

The English games tradition gained institutional footing when the Young Men’s Christian Association, founded in England in 1844, migrated to Boston and New York in 1851 and 1852, linking young men’s physical and spiritual development. The Young Women’s Christian Association started in Boston in 1866 with similar goals. Swedish gymnastics, a drill-based program using light apparatus like wands and climbing ropes, also arrived in the 1850s, winning Beecher’s recommendation in an 1856 calisthenics schoolbook. Meanwhile, Dioclesian Lewis developed his “American System” or “New Gymnastics.” He founded the Boston Normal Institute for Physical Training in 1861 and wrote several books; Boston schools soon adopted his program.

Now the “Battle of the Systems” was on, as school districts, cities, and states—California in 1866, and five others from 1892 to 1901—began mandating physical education in public schools. German gymnastics predominated for a time, using turner-trained teachers and heavy apparatus in high schools, colleges, and YMCAs (Young Men’s Christian Associations). Swedish immigrant Baron Nils Posse founded the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1889, which spread Swedish gymnastics to Boston’s schools and beyond. Deweyan education, however, favored recreational, informal, individualized programs.

The Swedish and American systems fell out of esteem; German gymnastics survived as an individual sport. School-based programs, such as those developed from 1885 to 1902 by Luther Halsey Gulick, emphasized pleasant games and exercises, and his student, James Naismith, developed basketball toward this end. Gulick’s influence helped plant school gymnasiums, playgrounds, and nonschool athletic leagues throughout the nation. Military drill briefly reappeared in curricula during World War I.

University Athletics

Intercollegiate athletics debuted with Harvard and Yale’s 1852 rowing showdown. Amherst College founded the first collegiate physical education department, hiring Edward Hitchcock and building a gymnasium in 1861. Harvard’s Hemenway Gymnasium came second, headed by Dudley Allen Sargent from 1879 until 1919. Harvard granted the first college physical education degree in 1893 and offered summer training for physical education teachers from 1887 to 1932.

Wellesley College hired the first full-time collegiate women’s physical educator in 1881. Gilded Age women’s colleges defensively instituted physical education, intercollegiate teams, and anthropometric testing to rebut medical claims that higher education damaged women’s health. Normal school, college, and graduate degree programs multiplied from the 1890s to 1910s, producing trained physical educators, as did physical education and swimming requirements for college graduation. Public land-grant colleges established following the 1862 Morrill Act required agricultural labor.

Modern Times

Despite the booming popularity of sport and “physical culture” after 1890, one third of American World War I recruits flunked their physical exams. In response, more states mandated school-based physical education: twenty by 1921, nearly forty by 1930. New schools included large gyms and athletic fields for expanded physical education and competition. Yet a backlash marked the late 1920s.

Women had won the vote, shortened their skirts, abandoned their corsets, and discovered myriad sporting interests since 1890; competitive sports for girls and women, especially basketball, attracted large crowds. But, alleging medical, reproductive, and emotional threats from intense competition, women physical educators now opposed competitive sport for girls. Instead these educators promoted noncompetitive “sport for all” that stymied girls seeking advanced competition and skill development. “Girls’ rules” for basketball, developed in 1901 to exalt “femininity” over aggressiveness, came to dominate the game. This philosophy hobbled girls’ physical education and sport for forty years.

World War II again revealed American physical shortcomings and prompted campaigns for physical fitness. By 1950, about 90 percent of precollegiate students received physical education. The 1953 Kraus-Weber fitness test showed American children trailing European peers, inspiring the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in 1956.

In the late 1960s, as women renewed their fight for rights, female physical educators reconsidered limitations on girls’ sport and physical education. But institutional and attitudinal barriers channeled girls and women into inferior facilities, narrower opportunities, and watered-down expectations. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 addressed those and other problems; over time, the law has vastly improved women’s athletic participation. “Lifetime sports” emerged in secondary-level physical education during the 1970s.

Since 1990, funding shortfalls and competing time demands, including high-stakes testing, have crowded physical education out of many school curricula, contributing to epidemic obesity. Although most elementary students still take some physical education, a 2001 Centers for Disease Control report found only 5 percent of schools requiring physical education for twelfth graders. Since 2004, many states have moved to restore physical education. Likewise, collegiate physical education requirements declined in the late twentieth century; by 2003, barely ten colleges retained swimming tests. To address colleges’ concerns about obesity, mental health, and other issues, physical education requirements may return as “wellness education” at the college level.


  1. Cahn, S. K. (1994). Coming on strong: Gender and sexuality in twentieth-century women’s sport. New York: Free Press.
  2. Freeman, W. F. (2000). Physical education and sport in a changing society (6th ed.). San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings.
  3. Gorn, E. J., & Goldstein, W. (1993). A brief history of American sports. New York: Hill & Wang.
  4. Todd, J. (1998). Physical culture and the body beautiful: Purposive exercise in the lives of American women, 1800–1875. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

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