The Revolution in Physical Education

JOAN FOSTER was a teacher and training college lecturer before giving up her job to raise a family. She is a member of the Society for Education Through Art.

IN A WELL-KNOWN BOOK the changes seen in the British educational system in this century have been described as “the silent social revolution”. Anarchists, looking for fundamental changes in the structure of society, would be more than a little sceptical of such a description, but there is one field of education where the revolution in theory and to a growing extent in practise, has been most striking: that of physical education – what in our parent's generation was symptomatically called Drill, what we called P.T. and what is now known as P.E.
For our parents this meant marching up and down like toy soldiers or marionettes. The pattern was military drill, and in upper-class schools the instructor was actually called the Sergeant, and behaved like one. Apart from being rigid, jerky and ugly, the military pose was physiologically bad: F. A. Hornibrook observed many years ago that,

In this age of scientific progress it is curious that our ideals concerning man's figure, posture, and gait should be based on the product of the drill sergeant's activities … Picture in the mind's eye the position of a soldier standing at attention and the position of any native man, such as a Fijian. In the former the back is 'hollowed' and the chest thrust forwards and upwards in the attempt to make the man as like a pouter pigeon as possible … Such a position becomes fatiguing very quickly. The freedom of chest movement being restricted, inspiration is interfered with, and the individual can only maintain his unnatural position by a mental effort, the duration of which depends on circumstances … Heels together and toes turned out (a position still adopted in schools and in the Army) is bad, and makes the maintaining of a correct stance exceedingly difficult.

The military ideal is best expressed in Kropotkin's story of the Grand Duke Mikhail who inspected his regiment and said, "Very good, only they breathe."
Drill was followed by "physical jerks" in which the prime virtue was found in the uniformity of movement among all the members ofthe class, even though it might consist of children of all shapes and sizes, and in that peculiarly military method of keeping people on their toes – the delayed word of command. In gymnastic work, first German and then Swedish, and finally Danish gymnastics were in vogue, and anyone who attended a grammar school before the war can remember the tedium of those hours in the expensively equipped gymnasium in which – as in cricket – most of the class's time was spent standing around waiting for their turn to perform some particular evolution. Apart from the wastage of the pupil's time, and the torture of the fat or physically inept child, this period gave us that dreadful stereotype – the Gym Mistress. As Miss Crabbe, the principal of one of our best Colleges of Physical Education observed:

The gym mistress used to be hearty, bossy, the born leader who rides roughshod over the meek and nervous; the tomboy, who later becomes the 'hockey hag', the organiser of assembly, speech days and school lectures – the one with the carrying voice and the good disciplinarian.

Today we have quite a different picture, and a different conception of the instructor, who does not raise her voice, and judges her success not on how many pupils can jump 4ft. l0in. or climb to the top of a rope, but as Miss Crabbe says, "by the number who have felt success and pleasure in some way and to some degree through body movement", and we might add (since physical education is really nothing to do with competitive sport or the gladiatorial training of Olympic performers) that we can measure her success in the poise, grace and economy of movement of her pupils.
The great changes which have taken place in theory and are steadily ousting older methods in practice have come, as such changes always do from the "cranks" on the fringe; in this instance with the concern for the quality of movement as such. Probably the most fruitful influences from the outside on physical education have been Rudolf Laban's ideas on the dance and those of F. M. Alexander and his disciples on posture. They are parallel of course to the general change, however partially and spasmodically achieved so far, to "child-centred" education.
The distance travelled in officially accepted ideas in one generation can be seen by comparing the Board of Education's Syllabus of Physical Training for Schools issued in 1933, with the Ministry of Educations' manual on physical education in the primary school, issued in two volumes in 1952 and 1953. The first volume Moving and Growing is an absorbing study of the physical and psychological growth of the child and his physical capabilities. The second, Planning the Programme, applied to class work the principles derived from the first, modestly noting that it provided, "for those teachers who need it, a nucleus of material … both teachers and children will, no doubt, expand the ideas given, and evolve their own …" Even so, it was still possible as recently as 1954 for the London County Council to issue for its teachers a book called Syllabus of Physical Training for Infants' Schools. Ruth Morison of the I. M. Marsh College of Physical Education, has written an excellent pamphlet, Educational Gymnastics, especially for teachers "who were trained in the Swedish System of Gymnastics and who are puzzled by the present day trends in Physical Education", in which she singles out the two great changes of the last few years as, firstly, that "we no longer think merely of giving instruction to classes but we set out to provide the environment, create the atmosphere and give the stimulus which will help the individual to grow and develop naturally' and secondly that instead of following 'systems' of set exercises "designed to suit the hypothetical average", and "making the whole class as nearly identical as possible in their movements, and in following a common 'rhythm'," the teacher is no longer concerned with preconstructed exercises "because each individual selects her own way and to help her through this way of moving."
When an account in the Times Educational Supplement on the change in approach declared that

A close study of children's natural movements, the use of their innate impulses to play and to dance, the encouragement of spontaneity and creativity, an atmosphere of permissiveness and informality, and a resolve to learn from the children themselves how to educate them – these are the marks of a modern programme of physical education for young children.

it called forth the comment that a serious omission from this list was "the teaching of fundamental skills such as running, jumping, landing, catching and throwing" since it does not follow that, without specific direction, children will perform them well or, in the case of some of them, even safely. This may be perfectly true, with the proviso that the child will be eager to perfect these skills when it is ready for them, and when they have a meaning and purpose for the individual child. An investigation to measure the effect of coaching in the junior school upon ultimate performance in the secondary school (in the case of soccer) printed as an appendix to M. W. Randall's Modern Ideas on Physical Education shows no significant relationship. The child learns when it is ready to learn.
On this question of correcting defects of posture and movement, the methods used by J. V. Fenton, a primary school headmaster, developed from the work of the late Charles Neil of the Re-education Centre, were described by him in an article in The New Era for Sept.-Oct. 1958, as follows:-

Whilst the rest of the class is distributed about the field or hall on various apparatus, one group is having specific instruction in a simple point of body mechanics. The teacher has chosen movement at the hip joint as the subject of the lesson and demonstrates the 'closing the lid of the box' action in leaning forward, while sitting. He then demonstrates distortions of this simple movement that involve the body in unnecessary strain. He encourages his group to suggest what is at fault. This they do with enjoyment and interest. He asks one or two to demonstrate 'right and wrong ways'. The children are highly inventive of wrong ways and find it fun; but all the time they are becoming increasingly aware that there is choice in the way one uses one's body.

Consciousness of choice is the first essential of freedom in any sphere, and in a way, we can describe the object of all physical education as the liberation of the body.
Swimming, more than anything else, consists of the discovery of the art of perfect movement, and with the coming of cheap fibreglass pools there is now no reason, except inertia or the feeling that "the authorities" are responsible for such things, why parents' associations or Parent-Teacher associations, should not provide a learners' pool at every primary school.
Just like the adventure playground, the new approach to physical education is revolutionary in that it seeks to provide for individual needs and individual self-selected activity. But can we call this an anarchist revolution, a revolution which can claim that the interweaving of this ever-changing variety of individual activities will produce a social harmony without an externally imposed authority? I am indebted to the editor of this magazine for the marvellous description of a really modern gymnasium at work, given in the book The Peckham Experiment, which epitomises the social aspect of this revolution. The authors, Innes Pearse and Lucy Crocker, are describing the gymnasium at the Peckham Health Centre – before the war, when in the schools we were still lining up our pupils in teams for Swedish gym. In their gymnasium, the observer saw

boys and girls moving in every direction at varying speeds, swinging on ropes suspended from the ceiling, running after balls and each other, climbing, sliding, jumping – all this activity proceeding without bumps or crashes, each child moving with unerring accuracy according to its own subjective purpose, without collision, deliberate avoidance or retreat.

And did this anarchy result in chaos? Not at all, for if we go on to study this activity from the point of view of a child who goes into it, we see that:

He goes in and learns unaided to swing and to climb, to balance, to. leap. As he does all these things he is acquiring facility in the use of his body. The boy who swings from rope to horse, leaping back again to the swinging rope, is learning by his eyes, muscles, joints and by every sense organ he has, to judge, to estimate, to know. The other twenty-nine boys and girls in the gymnasium are all as active as he, some of them in his immediate vicinity. But as he swings he does not avoid. He swings where there is space – a very important distinction – and in doing so he threads his way among his twenty-nine fellows. Using all his faculties, he is aware of the total situation in that gymnasium – of his own swinging and of his fellows' actions. He does not shout to the others to stop, to wait or to move from him – not that there is silence, for running conversations across the hall are kept up as he speeds through the air.
But this 'education' in the live use of all his senses can only come if his twenty-nine fellows are also free and active. If the room were cleared and twenty-nine boys sat at the side silent while he swung, we should in effect be saying to him – to his legs, body, eyes – 'You give all your attention to swinging; we'll keep the rest of the world away' – in fact – Be as egotistical as you like'. By so reducing the diversity in the environment we should be preventing his learning to apprehend and to move in a complex situation. We should in effect be saying – 'Only do this and this; you can't be expected to do more'. Is it any wonder that he comes to behave as though it is all he can do? By the existing methods of teaching we are in fact inducing the child's inco-ordination in society.

We have begun to realise this, and to create these conditions of freedom in physical education, which, in one small field, can be described as an anarchist society in miniature. What was once by far the most authoritarian, and indeed militaristic, subject in education, is becoming the most free and libertarian. Can such a change be entirely without influence in other fields of life?

Where Can They Play?
(Following the publication of the report "Two to Five in High Flats", two students wrote to the Guardian as follows):
As students at the City of Leicester Training College (for teachers) we have recently undertaken an investigation into young children's play and provision made for it. Our inquiries-during the summer vacation -covered 200 families with children aged from 2 to 15, in old and new housing estates, villages and towns in districts from Kent to Lancashire.
In towns the uses children like – and need – to make of open spaces (where they exist) were very often prohibited: "No ball games," "No bicycles," "Keep off the grass." In villages the children were more fortunate in natural surroundings but even less official provision was made for them, particularly for adolescents.
In housing estates conditions varied. New estates, where more and more people are living, seemed the worst off because less space for communal use or for private gardens can be afforded since the pressure for actual dwellings is so great. On old and new estates there were garden-proud parents who put the appearance of their gardens before the needs of their children. Only on one privately built estate had the parents campaigned for extra space to be left for playas well as their own gardens. In no cases were there any provisions for supervised play places for children under 5.
Following our investigation we started a play centre at the college where children aged from 5 to 12 can cook, sew, paint or model with clay, dance, play in the gymnasium, in the 'Wendy House', or with sand, among other things. We opened in September with an attendance of 35 children from the neighbourhood. After six months the numbers have risen to 108 and the children now come from a radius of three miles. This seems a strong indication that the children do not have enough or sufficiently varied opportunities for free play of the kind they want close at hand.
Your article has drawn attention to the lack or adequate provision for small children "living high". Our enquiries and experiences have discovered that there are similar inadequacies for a much wider age range and in a variety of housing situations.
Scraptoft, Leicester.

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Jul 23 2016 21:55


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