PE Takes Shape: Exploring School-Based Physical Education [INFOGRAPHIC]


Physical Education (PE) in schools has seen some interesting changes over the years in response to society, politics, and our understanding of health. Let’s explore some of the most notable ideas, studies, and events that have helped shape PE in the U.S. today.

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19th Century Physical Education

?     Physical education in schools started in European countries Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and England in the late 1700s

  • At this time, U.S. schooling what still focused exclusively on reading, writing, and arithmetic
  • However, as the U.S. industrialized, it became less common for people to work labor intensive jobs, making it necessary to find alternative means to stay in shape – hence an elevated interest in physical activity

?     In 1825, Charles Beck was hired as the 1st U.S. physical education teacher

?     It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the first legislation passed requiring physical education in California schools (1866)

?     PE in its early stages was recognized as gymnastics and calisthenics

  • It was about overall bodily fitness and finesse
  • Exercise periods were required in schools 2x a day

20th Century Physical Education

?     PE in schools really vamped up around the 1950s, after a series of physical fitness tests were issued in the U.S. and Europe

  • These tests included leg lifts, sit-ups, trunk lifts, and toe touches
  • The results were shocking!

?       56% of American students failed at least 1 portion of the test

?       While only 8% of European students failed at least 1 portion of the same test

?     With that, President Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports as an attempt to battle this now very apparent problem

?     PE moved away from gymnastics and became more focused on games, sports, and dance

?     JFK built off of Eisenhower’s PE initiatives and developed a proposed PE curriculum

  • This curriculum was formed with the help of 19 major U.S. educational and medical organizations
  • For 1 school year (1961-1962) a quarter of a million schoolchildren across 6 states adopted the test program
  • This effort helped shift America’s attitude about fitness and brought about a positive and energetic effort to enhance physical education in schools

21st Century Physical Education

?     From 1991 to 2003 the number of high school students participating in daily PE classes dropped from 42% to 28%, in part because of a nationwide shift in emphasis toward more academic subjects

?     The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report recommended that children ages 6-17 should receive at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily

?     PEP (physical education program) was first passed in 2001 with $5 million in grants for school physical education programs

  • After 13 years, a total of nearly $900 million was raised to help schools and communities rebuild quality PE programs
  • In 2014, $78 million was allocated to PEP; however, PEP funding was not granted for 2015
  • There is an effort to restore PEP funding for 2016, and supporters contacting Congress using this site:

?     Today’s innovative and effective PE programs are characterized by:

  • Alignment to National Standards (SHAPE America National Standards) for PE
  • Not using exercise as punishment
  • Never using students as targets (i.e. no dodgeball in PE)
  • Progressive skill building (i.e. teamwork, communication, critical thinking) and skill-based assessments
  • Incorporation of technology (i.e. performance analytics apps, fitness tracking wearables, and more)
  • Fitness tests used as student assessments several times throughout the year measuring improvement and not grades
  • Recreational fitness centers placed in schools for staff and students