Physical Education

views updated May 17 2018


b. ann boyce

preparation of teachers
murray mitchell


"Physical education is the study, practice, and appreciation of the art and science of human movement" (Harrison, Blakemore, and Buck, p. 15). While movement is both innate and essential to an individual's growth and development, it is the role of physical education to provide instructional activities that not only promote skill development and proficiency, but also enhance an individual's overall health. Physical education not only fulfills a unique role in education, but is also an integral part of the schooling process.

Historical Perspectives

From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, three nationsGermany, Sweden, and Englandinfluenced the early development of physical education in the United States. German immigrants introduced the Turner Societies, which advocated a system of gymnastics training that utilized heavy apparatus (e.g., side horse, parallel and horizontal bars) in the pursuit of fitness. In contrast, the Swedish system of exercise promoted health through the performance of a series of prescribed movement patterns with light apparatus (e.g., wands, climbing ropes). The English brought sports and games to America with a system that stressed moral development through participation in physical activities. The influence of these three nations laid the foundation for sport and physical education in America.

The 1800s were an important time for the inclusion of physical education in schools across America. The Round Hill School, a private school established in 1823 in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first to include physical education as an integral part of the curriculum. In 1824 Catherine Beecher, founder of the Hartford Female Seminary, included calisthenics in her school's curriculum and "was the first American to design a program of exercise for American children" (Lumpkin, p. 202). She also advocated the inclusion of daily physical education in public schools. However, physical education was not offered in the public schools until 1855, when Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first city school system to offer this type of program to children.

In 1866 California became the first state to pass a law requiring twice-per-day exercise periods in public schools. Beecher's influence started the American system of exercise, and, along with her contemporaries Dio Lewis, Edward Hitchcock, and Dudley Allen Sargent, she was an early leader in physical education. In the profession's early years, between 1855 and 1900, there were several debates, referred to as the Battle of the Systems, regarding which system (American, Swedish, German, or English) could best provide a national physical education program for America.

During the 1890s traditional education was challenged by John Dewey and his colleagues, whose educational reforms led to the expansion of the "three R's" to include physical education. It was also during this time that several normal schools (training schools for physical education teachers) were established. All of these schools offered a strong background in the sciences that included courses in anatomy and physiology, with many of the early professors holding medical degrees.

In 1893 Thomas Wood stated that "the great thought of physical education is not the education of the physical nature, but the relation of physical training to complete education, and then the effort to make the physical contribute its full share to the life of the individual" (National Education Association, p. 621). During the early twentieth century, several educational psychologists, including Dewey, Stanley G. Hall, and Edward Thorndike, supported the important role of children's play in a child's ability to learn. In line with the work of Wood in physical education, and the theoretical work of prominent educational psychologists, The New Physical Education was published in 1927 by Wood and Rosalind Cassidy, who advocated education through the physical.

This position supported the thesis that physical education contributed to the physical well-being of children, as well as to their social, emotional, and intellectual development. However, Charles McCloy argued against this expanded role of physical education, arguing that education of the physical, which emphasized the development of skills and the maintenance of the body, was the primary objective of physical education. The testing of motor skills was a part of McCloy's contribution to physical education, and his philosophy of testing paralleled the scientific movement in education.

The evolution of physical education, along with other educational professions, reflected contemporary changes in society. Throughout the early twentieth century, into the 1950s, there was a steady growth of physical education in the public schools. During the early 1920s many states passed legislation requiring physical education. However, shifts in curricular emphasis were evident when wars occurred and when the results of national reports were published. For example, as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States' entrance into World War II, the emphasis in physical education shifted from games and sport to physical conditioning. Similar curricular shifts were noted in 1953 when the Kraus-Weber study found that American children were far less fit than their European counterparts. As a result of this report, the President's Council on Physical Fitness was established to help combat the falling fitness levels of America's youth.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, physical education at the elementary level experienced tremendous growth. Today, many physical education programs emphasize overall fitness, referred to as wellness, as well as skill development. However, since the 1970s the number of schools offering daily physical education has drastically decreased1995 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a drop from 43 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995.


In the 1990s three national reportsThe Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health (1996), Healthy People 2000 (1990), and the CDC's Guidelines for School and Community Programs (1997)have focused on the deplorable physical condition of Americans. These reports cited physical inactivity as a national health risk, based on statistics such as: (1) 13 percent of young people are classified as overweight; (2) only half of all youths are physically active on a regular basis (and this percentage decreases with age); and (3) inactivity and poor diet cause at least 300,000 deaths per year.

These reports advocated the need for daily physical activity, citing the following health benefits from moderate participation: improved strength and endurance, healthier bones and muscles, weight control, reduced anxiety and increased self-esteem, and, often, improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Physical education is the major vehicle for improving the health and fitness of the nations' youth. Healthy People 2000 recommended the increase of daily physical education to a level of at least 50 percent of students in public schools by the year 2000.

In addition to the health benefits, cognitive performance can also be enhanced through physical education. There is a growing body of research that supports the important relationship between physical activity and brain development and cognitive performance. C. Edwin Bencraft (1999) found that "sensory and motor experiences play a prominent role in reinforcing synaptic connections and neural pathways" (p. 45). Eric Jensen's 1998 research revealed that the cerebellum is not solely dedicated to motor activity, but includes both cognitive and sensory operations. Further, Jensen points out the strong relationship of the cerebellum to memory, perception, language, and decision-making, citing physical activity as a way to enhance cognition. In a summary of research findings, Bencraft suggests providing the following applications that could increase cognitive performance: (1) challenging motor tasks before the age of ten can increase cognitive ability due to a heavier, more dendrite-rich brain;(2) aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning by increasing the number of capillaries serving the brain through the delivery of more oxygen and glucose and removal of carbon dioxide; (3) cross-lateral movements increase the communication ability between the brain's hemispheres; and (4) physical activity reduces the production of stress chemicals that inhibit cognitive processing.

From the mounting evidence favoring physical activity, it appears that physical education in schools plays a dual role in serving both mind and body. The challenge to physical educators will be to implement programs that address the health crisis while building the child's mind through physical activity.


According to the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), a quality physical education program for grades K12 includes instructional periods totaling at least 150 minutes per week at the elementary level and 225 minutes at the secondary level, qualified physical education specialists, and adequate equipment and facilities. In general, the curriculum should consist of: (a) instruction in a variety of developmentally appropriate motor skills that challenge students to develop physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally; (b) fitness activities that educate and help students understand and improve or maintain optimal fitness levels; (c) instruction in concepts that lead to a better understanding of motor skills and fitness development; (d) opportunities to engage in experiences that enhance cooperation and develop multicultural awareness; and (e) experiences that foster the desire for lifelong participation in physical activity.

More specifically, the elementary curriculum should include many enjoyable activities that lead to the acquisition and refinement of fundamental motor patterns (e.g., running, skipping, jumping, catching, throwing, striking, balancing) that can be applied in game, sport, dance, and gymnastics contexts. The movement-based curriculum proposed and adapted by George Graham, Shirley Ann Holt/Hale, and Melissa Parker in 1998 introduces skill themes (fundamental motor patterns) and movement concepts that describe how a movement is performed (e.g., speed, direction, relationship). This curriculum pattern teaches children to move while challenging them to explore, modify, and refine motor patterns, and it can be used as a vehicle for teaching physical education. The activity based approach is the most common curriculum pattern used in both middle schools and high schools. This curricular pattern uses activity units in sport, fitness, and dance (e.g., volleyball, aerobic dance, swimming) to teach physical education.

Middle school curriculums should include a wide variety of team and individual sports utilizing motor skills introduced and refined at the elementary level. High school curriculums should focus on lifetime sports skills (e.g., golf, tennis, aerobic dance), with a secondary emphasis on team sports. During the high school years, students should become highly proficient in one (or more) sport and/or fitness activity of their own choosing. However, regardless of the level of schooling, fitness forms the base of the curriculum and it is an integral part of the program.

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

School accountability, a major trend of the 1990s, has driven the need for national assessment (testing) and standards. This trend has become an issue and has created debate throughout education, including physical education. Proponents on both sides have valid points to make. Those who oppose national testing point out the need for people to enjoy physical activity. They believe that testing does not foster the desire for lifelong participation. In contrast, proponents of testing think it would parallel work completed in other disciplines, such as math and science, while helping students gauge their progress towards a national standard for fitness and/or skill competence.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has provided guidelines in the form of grade-level benchmarks, as well as an operational definition of the physically educated person. Such a person is skillful in a variety of physical activities, physically fit, participates regularly in physical activity, knows the benefits of physical activity, values physical activity and its contributions to a healthy lifestyle, respects diversity, and acts in a socially responsible manner. The question remains, however, of how much direction and specificity in the form of standards and assessment are needed.

In many school programs and business settings, the term wellness has replaced fitness and health. In general, this term refers to optimal health and well-being, but it has been broadened to include the dimensions of emotional, mental, spiritual, social, and environmental well-being.

There are many issues that are of interest to all educators, issues that pose a challenge to all of those who seek to teach children. These include discipline problems, student drug abuse, violence, insufficient resources, lack of parental support for education, large classes, teacher burnout, and perhaps most importantly, a concern for the health and well-being of all children.

By far the greatest issue facing physical education in K12 institutions is the reduction of time in the curriculum allotted to this important subject. The need for daily physical education is obviously important for the well-being of students, but it presents a dilemma for those who must balance academics, accountability, and what is best for the child's overall education. Given the support for the physical and psychological contributions of exercise, along with the health risks associated with inactivity, it is clear that daily physical education plays a crucial and unique role in each child's cognitive, psychological, and physical development.

See also: Elementary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Health Education, School; Secondary Education, subentries on Current Trends, History of; Sports, School.


American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. 1999. Speak II: Sport and Physical Education Advocacy Kit II. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

Bencraft, C. Edwin. 1999. "Relationship between Physical Activity, Brain Development and Cognitive Performance." Brain Research and Physical Activity: Maryland Physical Education Study Group Report. SPEAK Kit, Vol. 2. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1995. Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997. Guidelines for School and Community Programs: Lifelong Physical Activity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Fahey, Thomas D.; Insel, Paul M.; and Roth, Walton T. 1994. Fit and Well. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Graham, George; Holt/Hale, Shirley Ann; and Parker, Melissa. 1998. Children Moving: A Reflective Approach to Teaching Physical Education, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Harrison, Joyce M.; Blakemore, Connie L.; and Buck, Marilyn M. 2001. Instructional Strategies for Secondary School Physical Education, 5th edition. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Lumpkin, Angela. 1994. Physical Education and Sport: A Contemporary Introduction, 3rd edition. St. Louis: Mosby.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1992. The Physically Educated Person. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1995. Moving into the Future: National Standard for Physical Education. St Louis, MO: Mosby.

National Education Association. 1893. NEA Proceedings 32:621.

Swanson, Richard A., and Spears, Betty Mary. 1995. History of Sport and Physical Education in the United States, 4th edition. Madison, WI: WCB Brown and Benchmark.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1990. Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion Disease Prevention Objectives. DHHS Publication Number PSH 91-50212. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1996. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

B. Ann Boyce


In the United States, teacher preparation in physical education originally had close links to medicine. A program of study would commonly include anatomy, physiology, health, first aid, history and philosophy, educational psychology, and various physical skillsfrom gymnastics through dance, games, and sport. Major shifts across time have largely involved the length of programs of study on each of these topics.

A Brief History

The early roots of physical education teacher preparation in the United States can be traced to the northeastern part of the country during the latter part of the 1800s. In 1952 Charles Bucher described a ten-week course at the Normal Institute of Physical Education in Boston (founded by Dio Lewis) as graduating the nation's first class of physical education teachers in 1861. A one-year course of study was developed in 1866 in New York City under the name of the North American Turnerbund. The Sargent School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the direction of Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, began preparing teachers in 1881, and in 1886 the Brooklyn Normal School for Physical Education was opened.

In 1886 the International Young Men's Christian Association College at Springfield Massachusetts began operations. This institution, which evolved into the Springfield College, began with the mission to prepare physical education teachers for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Later, degrees at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels for study in physical education were awarded by this institution. In general, the preparation of physical education teachers in the late 1800s and early 1900s ranged from as little as two months to as much as five years.

Prior to World War I, preparation to teach physical education was primarily completed in normal schools. The poor condition of many of the men in the country who were called to serve in the war heightened interest in physical education. As a result of such concerns, there was some form of compulsory public school physical education in thirty-eight states by 1930.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the requirements for physical education teachers vary somewhat by state, since education is governed at that level rather than by national standards. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has published guidelines for beginning teachers in an attempt to provide some professional leadership. These guidelines are not binding on either institutions preparing teachers or on state governments, where the responsibility of licensing teachers rests. In a collaborative effort with one of the major accrediting agencies for teacher preparation programs, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), NASPE has created guidelines for programs seeking accreditation in the preparation of physical educators for initial certification.

Current Structure

Physical education teacher education (PETE) programs in the United States are designed around at least three models and five conceptual orientations. One model is delivered at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, programs are usually delivered in a four-year program with course work in three major areas: general education (e.g., the broad concepts in many fields that the general public associates with an educated citizen), professional education (e.g., concepts specifically linked with what is known about teaching and learning), and content knowledge (e.g., the information unique to the field, often represented in a variety of subdisciplinary areas such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, and motor learning). The actual number of credits and sequence of these courses varies and is often dependent upon the philosophical orientation of the program and resources available to the faculty.

One type of graduate PETE program has evolved from various reform efforts, including the Holmes Group initiative. In this approach, students study for a four-year degree in the content area supporting the type of licensure they seek. In physical education, an undergraduate degree could be in sport studies, exercise physiology, biomechanics, or some other related subdisciplinary field. At the master's level, students then study the pedagogical content to learn how to deliver the content knowledge to students. This approach is a response to perceived needs of teachers to be better prepared in the content knowledge of their field.

A second type of graduate PETE program is sometimes characterized as a response to teacher shortages. In this approach, candidates have typically acquired an undergraduate degree in some field other than physical education. Graduate programs for this approach must include a combination of content knowledge and professional education. Students changing careers are often attracted to this model.

In 1990 Sharon Feiman-Nemser described five conceptual orientations to teacher education, regardless of the model; three years later Judith Rink provided adaptations to these models using examples appropriate to PETE programs. Both authors suggest that the conceptual orientation guides the delivery of content. In contrast to Feiman-Nemser, however, Rink suggests that it is possible for parts of each orientation to exist in any program.

The academic orientation holds that the subject matter knowledge is central. The focus of these programs is on games, sports, dance, and fitness knowledge. In the practical orientation, experience and conventional wisdom are the focal points. Field experiences are key parts of these programs, where students are given ample practice time with practice-proven methods of teaching. The technological orientation has also been characterized as systematic, science-based instruction where there is an emphasis on mastering teacher effectiveness skills. Instruction is based on research-based teaching for student skill development. The personal orientation is a more humanistic approach where the teacher and learner are considered as people first; teaching, learning, and content are secondary concerns. Individualization, nurturing personal meaning, and growth are hallmarks of this approach to teacher education. In the critical/social orientation, the relationship between schools and the structure of society becomes central. Attention is drawn to the moral obligations of teachers to include all members of society, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, skill level, or socioeconomic level.

Michael Metzler and Bonnie Tjeerdsma (2000) suggest that teacher educators have a responsibility to assess the effectiveness of what they do, with whatever model or conceptual orientation is selected. They suggest that few teacher educators have spent much effort doing this type of assessment. In an effort to be of assistance, Metzler and Tjeerdsma provide a variety of tools for assessing and improving program delivery.

Daryl Siedentop and Larry Locke provided an alternative perspective on assessing PETE programs in 1997. They describe the minimum conditions necessary for the effective operation of a PETE program, and also suggest that the responsibility of PETE programs goes beyond educating new recruits and includes a duty to "create and sustain good school programs" (p. 27). These authors go on to lament that few PETE faculty have assumed any responsibility for the quality of programs in schools, instead adopting an "us" (e.g., faculty in higher education) versus "them" (e.g., teachers in the K12 schools) mentality. The outcome of this adversarial relationship has been a declining level of competent program delivery, with national health-related consequences. In 1990 John Goodlad identified a similar concern when he suggested that the reform or renewal of schools, teachers, and teacher preparation programs has to occur simultaneously.

In-Service and Staff Development

Most states require some sort of ongoing accumulation of continuing education credits for teachers to retain their licensure. Most school districts create opportunities for continuing education related to topics relevant to the purposes of schools and needs of students in their community. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often too generic to address the specific needs of physical educators, and are often perceived to be ineffective.

Beyond state and school district requirements, there is a key challenge for licensure programs: convincing graduates that their preparation to become true professionals has not ended, but has just begun. Without an internal commitment to ongoing professional growth, few in-service or staff development efforts are effective at eliciting change. Indeed, although specific examples of successful change efforts can be cited, Linda Bain (1990) describes practice in physical education as "generally resistant to change"(p. 771).

Michael Eraut (1987) describes four approaches to in-service education that can be used to categorize some of the work in physical education. The defect approach involves behavioral training to build skills that teachers lack. In physical education, targets of this approach have included different verbal behaviors (e.g., feedback, prompts, questions, use of student names, etc.), teacher movement, task selection, and others. The growth approach is about helping teachers seek greater fulfillment, rather than helping them simply become competent. In physical education, this approach is difficult to distinguish from the problem-solving approach, where efforts are made to help teachers diagnose problems in their own instructional setting. Program research from places like Teachers College at Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts would be examples of this kind of in-service program. Lastly, the change paradigm involves efforts to make changes in programs that are responsive to greater societal needs. Attention to gender equity, mainstreaming, and nondiscrimination would be examples of this work in physical education.

Trends and Controversies

The most critical concern facing physical educators in the United States is the viability of physical education programs as a required subject in schools. As opportunities for advanced placement courses; electives in art, music, and foreign languages; and other varied courses have occurred, time in the required curriculum for physical education has declined. There are consequences to this on at least two levels. First, the health of the nation is at risk when the most equitable delivery system for ensuring active lifestyles is curtailed. Second, there is a declining need for teacher education programs when there are fewer teaching positions available for program graduates.

Related to the time available for physical education programs in schools is an ongoing debate over the most appropriate content for programs. In some states (e.g., West Virginia and Florida) there is a major emphasis on student performance on fitness tests as an indication of physical education program effectiveness. In other states (e.g., Missouri) there is more of an emphasis on the demonstration of written competence in health-related fitness knowledge. In at least one other approach (South Carolina), there is an attempt to hold teachers accountable for fitness levels and fitness knowledge, as well as out of-class behaviors and movement competence. There are obvious implications for teacher preparation programs in each of these states with respect to what will be expected of program graduates. It is also worth noting that none of these approaches is an exact match with NASPE guidelines.

Part of the debate over appropriate content for teacher preparation can be traced back to a classic 1964 work by Franklin Henry, where physical education was first conceptualized as an academic discipline in the United States. For the first time, the study of human movement spawned viable areas of study, leading to degrees and careers other than teaching. Today, locating departments of physical education in colleges and universities is a challenge, partly because such departments can go by so many different names: 114 have been counted by P. Stanley Brassie and Jack Razor, including Biomechanics, Kinesiological Studies, Kinesiology, Sport Science, and Sport Studies, to cite just a few. Approximately half of these departments are in colleges of education, while others are in colleges of liberal arts, applied sciences, health, or elsewhere. This identity crisis has lead to marginal status for physical educators at all levels.

A common trend in teacher preparation programs is for early and frequent field-based experiences for students. The challenge is to find (or create) placements where desirable practices are being modeled. An additional challenge is to determine the amount and type of training required to prepare school-based supervisors.

The last major controversy that warrants mention in teacher preparation involves determining the most appropriate level for initial licensure. In some institutions (e.g., the Ohio State University), initial licensure in physical education is only available at the graduate level. In other schools (e.g., University of South Carolina), initial licensure is available at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In most of the rest of the country, initial licensure is predominantly delivered at the undergraduate level. There is no definitive evidence on which (if any) of these approaches is the most appropriate way to prepare physical education teachers.

See also: Curriculum, Higher Education, subentry on Traditional and Contemporary Perspectives; Curriculum, School; Health Education, School; Sports, School.


Bain, Linda. 1990. "Physical Education Teacher Education." In Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, ed. W. Robert Houston. New York: Macmillan.

Brassie, P. Stanley, and Razor, Jack. 1989. "HPER Unit Names in Higher Education: A View toward the Future." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 60 (7):3340.

Bucher, Charles Augustus. 1952. Foundations of Physical Education. St. Louis, MO: C.V. Mosby.

Coleman, Margaret, and Mitchell, Murray. 2000. "Assessing Observation Focus and Conference Targets of Cooperating Teachers." Journal of Teaching in Physical Education 20:4054.

Eraut, Michael. 1987. "Inservice Teacher Education." In The International Encyclopedia of Teaching and Teacher Education, ed. Michael J. Dunkin. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

Feiman-Nemser, Sharon. 1990. Conceptual Orientations in Teacher Education. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, National Center for Research on Teacher Education.

Goodlad, John. 1990. Teachers for Our Nation's Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Henry, Franklin. 1964. "Physical Education As an Academic Discipline." Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation 37 (9):3233.

Holmes Group. 1986. Tomorrow's Teachers. East Lansing, MI: Holmes Group.

Housner, Lynn. 1996. "Innovation and Change in Physical Education." In Student Learning in Physical Education: Applying Research to Enhance Instruction, ed. Stephen Silverman and Catherine Ennis. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Mechikoff, Robert, and Estes, Steven. 1993. A History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Education. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.

Metzler, Michael, and Tjeerdsma, Bonnie. 2000. Assessment of Physical Education Teacher Education Programs. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1992. Developmentally Appropriate Physical Education Practices for Children. Washington, DC: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1995. Moving into the Future: National Standards for Physical Education. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1995. National Standards for Beginning Physical Education Teachers. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1997. Shape of the Nation. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. 1998. National Association for Sport and Physical Education/National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education Guidelines for Teacher Preparation in Physical Education. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

Rink, Judith E. 1993. "Teacher Education: A Focus on Action." Quest 45:308320.

Siedentop, Daryl, and Locke, Larry. 1997. "Making a Difference for Physical Education: What Professors and Practitioners Must Build Together." Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 68 (4):2533.

Murray Mitchell

Physical Education

views updated Jun 11 2018

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 twoas well as harmonious development of the bodywas 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 Research Quarterly 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 PL142, 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: 202219.

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

internet resource

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

Roberta Park

Physical Education

views updated May 29 2018


Questions of sexuality and gender have been central to the history of physical education since the introduction of the discipline into U.S. colleges and universities in the late nineteenth century. The deeply entrenched cultural association between athletic prowess, heterosexual masculinity, and the male body has helped position the discipline as a key site for the analysis of LGBT identities and as a vehicle through which normative sexualities have been variously reinforced and transgressed.

With the emergence of capitalist industrial society in the nineteenth century, the distinction between leisure time and labor time became increasingly pronounced, and newly waged laborers and the middle and upper classes took to organized sport and exercise in large numbers. This trend was mirrored in the rapidly expanding higher education system where competitive intercollegiate athletics programs were complemented by the creation of physical education departments in which exercise specialists introduced young men to military drill and gymnastics. In each of these realms, sport was designed to cultivate a virile, tough, and implicitly heterosexual manhood that could sustain itself within what was widely viewed as artificial and effete urban society.

Women in Sport

Concern over the frailty of middle- and upper-class white women, whose enrollment in higher education was increasing during the same period, enabled women physical educators to enter the world of academe for the first time. From the 1890s onward, physical education departments for women created degree-granting majors as well as providing oftentimes mandatory physical exercise courses for female students.

Susan K. Cahn's Coming on Strong (1994), which examines the history of women in sport in the twentieth century, reveals that from the beginning, concerns about the sexual appetites and persuasions of physically active undergraduate women abounded. In the early decades of the century, concern focused on the belief that "mannish" female athletes might acquire masculine sexual behaviors and find their feminine inhibitions giving way to uncontainable heterosexual desire. But by the 1930s, female athleticism began to connote failed rather than excessive heterosexuality and physical educators worried that "mannish" athletes might have a propensity for same-sex desire. In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War "homosexual panic," physical educators responded to the "crisis" of the "mannish lesbian athlete" by developing a curriculum that undertook an activist approach to heterosexuality: beauty and charm were emphasized over rigorous health and fitness, and mixed-sex "co-recreation" over what were formerly strictly segregated activities for men and women.

As white women largely deserted "manly" sports such as track and field in the 1930s, African American women, trained in segregated high schools and colleges in the South, began to blaze a trail of national and international success. In the early days of their participation, African American women were not constrained by the same stereotypes as their white counterparts, since ideal versions of black womanhood were not tied to a similarly limited set of characteristics and practices. This is not to say that their participation was entirely a positive development, however: African American women's participation did not produce high levels of anxiety among the white physical education establishment because they did not view African Americans as "real women" in the first place. This assumption, in addition to formal and informal racial segregation across the United States, meant that African American women, like other women of color, remained largely invisible in the dominant culture of physical education. This was to change with the sporting rivalries of the Cold War and a concerted effort on the part of both the black and white athletic establishments to cultivate black women athletes who were both more feminine (that is, more heterosexual) and more successful than their Russian counterparts. While white sports officials came to rely on black women to keep pace with Eastern European bloc athletes and to disprove Soviet charges of pervasive racial discrimination in the United States, black officials approached women's track and field as a measure of black cultural achievement and as a vehicle by which to insert into the public sphere carefully cultivated images of black women who were both feminine and morally virtuous.

New Scholarly Perspectives: 1970–2000

In the 1970s, with the emergence of the sociology of sport as a field of study within physical education, critical perspectives on gender, sexuality, physical education, and sport began to appear. Early work in this area focused on the "lesbian stigma" and the negative effect of "role conflict" and homophobic stereotypes on straight women in sport. Scholars of this era were particularly concerned about the "female apologetic," or the tendency for women athletes to perform traditional displays of heterosexual femininity in order to counter the lesbian stigma.

As the lives of LGBT people were increasingly taken to be legitimate subjects of study in the university at large, scholars in the sociology of sport became less fearful and euphemistic in their treatment of antinormative sexualities and genders. This shift manifested itself in life history and ethnographic research aimed at reclaiming the experiences of lesbian educators, coaches, and athletes in order to reduce their invisibility and the oppressive silence that surrounded issues of lesbian identity in the world of sport. Pat Griffin's Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport (1998) exemplifies this line of work with its detailed accounts of the harassment, discrimination, and silencing experienced by lesbian teachers and coaches, along with stories of their resistance to such oppression.

The pervasive cultural disjuncture between homosexuality and masculinity and thus homosexuality and sport meant that gay and bisexual men in this period remained largely invisible as scholars, teachers, or students of physical education. This absence was challenged in the 1990s by scholars seeking to make evident and to interpret the experiences of gay men in sport and to understand how male homoeroticism is enabled and constrained in heterosexual and homosexual men's sport cultures.

Inspired by Michel Foucault's work on the history of sexuality, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and feminist theories of "biological" sex as the product of regimes of gender and compulsory heterosexuality, what would most appropriately be termed "queer" scholarship in the sociology of sport also began to emerge in the 1990s. Queer studies of sport are characterized by a move away from both essentializing research about "lesbian experience" and from a deviance model in which sexual orientation is only made visible when LGBT people are the focus of discussion, thus leaving heterosexuality as the unexamined norm. Instead, queer studies seeks to understand the ways in which sport and physical education function as sites through which sexual identities are produced and naturalized as normal or deviant, but also through which apparently stable categories are disrupted and transgressed. Such work shares an assumption that sport and physical education are particularly potent realms for queer research because they are centered on the body and because of the continuing segregation of competitive sports along lines of gender. Through examples ranging from the Pumping Iron films, through the controversy surrounding transsexual professional tennis player Renée Richards, to "gender verification" testing at international athletic events, poststructuralist scholars have sought to displace notions of the body in sport as natural—and hence naturally sexed—and instead to explore the contingency and fluidity of sexuality and gender as they are manifested in sporting practices, cultures, and texts. In the context of the ongoing commodification of sport, researchers have placed particular emphasis on the effect of commercial pressures in the public presentation of activities that are viewed as gay (for example, men's figure skating) or lesbian (such as women's golf).

Although certain work in sport studies is attuned to the necessity of analyzing the intersection of sexuality with relations of race, class, gender, nation, and so on, categories such as "lesbians in sport" or "gay athletes" are still frequently deployed without consideration of their universalizing and thus exclusionary functions. While there exists a range of approaches to queer issues in the intersecting fields of physical education, the sociology and psychology of sport, and sport studies, the implicit subject of the discipline—American, white, and middle class—is yet to be decentered.


Adams, Mary Louise. "To Be an Ordinary Hero: Male Figure Skaters and the Ideology of Gender." In Men and Masculinities: A Critical Anthology. Edited by T. Haddock. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 1993.

Birrell, Susan, and Cheryl L. Cole, eds. Women, Sport, and Culture. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1994.

Cahn, Susan K. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Connell, Robert. Gender and Power. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Griffin, Pat. Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1998.

Messner, Michael A., and Don F. Sabo, eds. Sport, Men, and the Gender Order. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Press, 1990.

Pronger, Brian. The Arena of Masculinity: Sport, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Sykes, Heather. "Turning the Closets Inside/Out: Towards a Queer Feminist Theory in Women's Physical Education." Sociology of Sport Journal 15 (1998): 154–173.

Samantha J. King

see alsosports.

physical education as charm school

In Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport (1994), Susan Cahn describes a 1956 conference for directors of college women's physical education at which guest speaker Dr. Josephine Renshaw advised those in the audience to do all they could to encourage heterosexual interest among these women because the "muscular Amazon with unkempt hair, clod-hopper shoes, and dowdy clothing" might "revert to friendships with [her] own sex if disappointed with heterosexual attachments" (p. 164).

physical education

views updated May 21 2018

phys·i·cal ed·u·ca·tion • n. instruction in physical exercise and games, esp. in schools.