The Evolution of Physical Education


Physical education is such a strong staple in today’s school curriculum that it’s hard to imagine it was not always a part of the world’s everyday education. But every program has its beginnings, and the state of physical education in America is no exception. Let’s take a look at how the physical education program in today’s school system got its beginnings.

physical education

The 1800s

Physical education was first stamped into the school system in 1820 when gymnastics, hygiene, and care of the human body found its introduction into the curriculum. In 1823, the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts was the first school in the nation to make it an integral part of their educational program.

But physical education did not become a formal requirement until after the civil war, when many states put the physical education requirement into law. In 1855, the practice was truly born in the United States, beginning with a city school system in Cincinnati, Ohio, which became the first entire schooling system to implement the program. California followed soon after, in 1866, as the first state to pass a law requiring twice a day exercise in public schools.

The 1900s

By the turn of the century, sports and gymnastics were highly prominent in educational institutions. In the following years until World War I, educators could begin to select a profession in physical education. From then until the Great Depression, physical education was standard part of formal education.

By 1950, over 400 United States colleges and universities were offering the physical education major to teachers. The Korean War then proved that Americans were not as physically fit they should be, and a new surge of focus on the physical fitness of the nation was born. This resulted in a more stringent level of standards within U.S. schools, including the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy placed a keen eye on promoting physical education programs, and employed a Presidential Fitness Test Award to assess physical fitness levels of the nation’s children. This ensured that U.S. students were at least as physically fit as European students. This test, implemented in 1966, was designed to encourage and prepare America’s youth for military service. It included throwing, jumping, a shuttle run, and pull-ups. The award was given to students placing in the top 85th percentile based on national standards.

In later years, physical fitness programs saw cutbacks during times of recession, and in 1980 and 1990 many programs were dropped from educational institutions. Both economic concerns and issues with poor curriculum plagued these years of the 20th century, and as the commitment to physical education declined, additional subjects and electives began to take the place of these classes.

Modern Focus

Since its inception, the changing academic curriculum has seen multiple enhancements to the physical education discipline. Many national and global events have taken part in altering the course of physical education in America and bringing us to our current structure. With physical education classes often being the first to go during budget cuts and curriculum reorganizations, the evolution has been a winding road with constantly redeveloped guidelines.

Physical education is a staple of a comprehensive educational system, and fitness plays a major part in the physical and mental health of all Americans. Today’s educational landscape has allowed this important program to flourish as an integral part of the modern day educational school system. Lately this focus has been renewed, as there is now a national concern over the rising rate of obesity among our youth. Fortunately, programs like the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Program are renewing our dedication and shifting the focus back on physical education within the school systems, nationwide.


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