Physical Education: History & Major Contributors

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  • 0:04 Early Physical Education
  • 0:58 Dewey, Reform, &…
  • 2:20 Physical Education for Women
  • 4:06 Physical Education for Blacks
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

The history of physical education dates back to ancient Greece, but it's been a long and winding road to today's classes. Along the way, women and African Americans made significant contributions, despite unequal access to physical education classes.

Early Physical Education

Physical education, or the teaching of physical activities and fitness, goes back as far as 386 B.C.E. to Plato's school, known as Akademia, or 'The Academy' in English. The father of our more modern physical education classes is Friedrich Jahn, who was a teacher in the early 1800s who began teaching a program of outdoor physical education activities for students in the secondary schools where he taught. Some of his methods, such as the balance beam, parallel bars, and rings, serve as the fundamental equipment for gymnastics. In fact, he created the first gymnastics club for youth and adults. Charles Beck would bring gymnastics to the United States in 1825, when he began teaching in Northampton, Massachusetts, at a reform school modeled after the German system. Another German, Charles Follen, founded the first college gymnasium at Harvard University in 1826.

Dewey, Reform, & Physical Education

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the notion of physical education in public schools began to make a dramatic shift. In 1866, California became the first state in the country to pass a law requiring two exercise periods a day in public schools. In the early 1900s, everything changed. John Dewey, an American psychologist who led a progressive education movement in America, pushed for reforms in the education system. His child-centered, natural approach to education, led to physical education being included in more schools. Dewey ignited this change because physical education was perceived as a way students could attain some of the social goals for students at the time. Physical play was believed to be a means to learn in this progressive model of education.

In America, the actual teaching of physical education as part of schools only goes back to WWI, during the 1910s. It was during the war that the military health statistics showed that approximately one-third of all recruits were physically unfit for combat. As a result, the United States government interceded and passed legislation to increase the quality of physical education classes for students across the country. It turned out to be a very practical decision because even those who didn't serve in the military in WWI needed a higher level of physical fitness if they were going to work in factories during the war.

Physical Education for Women

Historically, women had been excluded from physical education in schools since they were perceived in their male-centered society as the 'weaker sex.' It wasn't until the 1800s that the women began to have opportunities to engage in physical education. Catharine Beecher was a founding mother of physical education for girls. Before she opened a girls seminary in 1823 with her sister, girls education focused primarily on teaching foreign language and fine arts, such as music and dance. In defiance of convention, girls at her school did calisthenics, going against the notion that girls were too frail for such physical activity. However, well into the 1900s women were discouraged from participating in team sports because it was believed it would make them 'less feminine.'

In 1874, the debate about women and physical education would take a hit with the publication of Sex in Education or, A Fair Chance for Girls by Dr. Edward Clarke. In this work, Clarke argued that women couldn't handle physical or mental exertion during their menstrual cycles. Unfortunately, this mindset persisted for decades until science proved his notion to be untrue. To combat Clarke's idea, women began to form athletic clubs that offered sports such as croquet, tennis, and bowling.

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