Physical education history traces back to ancient Greece, but it exists all over the world today. Starting from a young age, children need to engage in regular physical activity to develop their minds and bodies. In the United States, P.E. is a crucial component of early childhood education, laying the foundation for a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.
Physical education benefits a growing individual’s mind and body. Increasing physical activity allows students to focus more in school, prevents injury and disease, improves their self-esteem, and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, among other mental health benefits.
Even if they do not have daily P.E. class, students still benefit from learning about their body and ways to move. From there, they can nurture personal interests in different forms of activity, such as competitive sports, running, yoga, dance, or any other exercise type that they can commit to regularly.
In 386 B.C., P.E. began in ancient Greece. Plato is the one who invented physical education, hosting classes at his school titled Akademia. He understood the importance of teaching children about physical fitness, and students began learning it at age seven. Plato was a skilled wrestler, and he believed that education and physical activity combined helped one attain perfection.
Physical training helped prepare students for careers as warriors or athletes. Common sports included wrestling, boxing, and chariot races. Physical education classes helped progress Greek society, and eventually, word of them spread throughout the world.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that physical education started in the United States. Similar to Athens education, P.E. trained and educated soldiers for battle. After the American Civil War, schools enacted laws necessitating physical education programs in public schools to prepare future generations for war.
Nonetheless, schools eventually used these classes to take health seriously and offered more attention to physical health and development. World War I showed that ⅓ of military recruits were physically unfit for combat. The government then passed legislation to improve the quality of these courses.
By World War II, physical education became common for men and women to cultivate their physiques for combat and manual labor. Since the military draft rejected some men from childhood malnutrition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the National School Lunch Program to improve children’s nutrition.
Soon after, a national fear arose concerning the rapid weight gain of American children. President John F. Kennedy became an advocate for physical education and fitness in America, campaigning for it even before his election. Once in office, the President made it a goal to improve the nation’s physical fitness levels.
President Kennedy created a White House Committee on Health and Fitness. This committee had an annual Youth Fitness Congress with every United States governor. Incorporating the federal and state governments ensured the American people would recognize the national need for reform.
Many colleges also began offering courses to help students understand the human body, improve their physical capabilities, and increase their self-worth. Initially, girls leaned towards gymnastics as boys engaged in rougher sports. In 1975, the U.S. House of Representatives created an amendment to the Federal Education Act to prevent gender discrimination in physical education. Women could participate in more sports in their schools.
Physical education programs have expanded to inform students of all aspects of fitness, including strength, flexibility, endurance, body composition, and nutrition. Learning the basics of these pillars encourages a life of health and wellness. Imbalances may lead to injury and illness, but working on each of these areas reduces the risk of all-cause mortality, improves mental health and cognitive performance, and increases the quality of life.
At this time, 95% of high schools, 84% of middle schools, and 69% of elementary schools require physical education in the United States. Of the 50 states, 38 require school districts to follow physical education standards laid out in the National Standards for Physical Education, and 43 states have made physical education a mandatory part of the curriculum.
These national standards for physical literacy in K-12 physical education include:
As many schools continue to participate in distance learning, in-person physical education classes have taken the backseat. However, the rich physical education history displays just how imperative it is for molding young minds.
Physical education offers countless physical and mental health benefits. Not only does physical activity reduce your risk of disease, but it can also improve your grades and concentration in school. During these changing times, physical education will continue to evolve. Nevertheless, its importance remains paramount in ensuring our children’s health and society’s betterment as a whole.
Sandy Slade is the CEO & Founder of Skillastics®, the #1 large group physical activity resource. Skillastics® makes it easy to organize, motivate, and engage students to move, learn, and love it. Skillastics® is an innovative technique of play designed around an oversize mat where up to 100 children can play at one time. There are 13 different Skillastics® Activity Kit themes, ranging from general fitness, sport skill development, character enhancement, and academic integration, including STEM and nutrition. The newest layer of Skillastics® resources includes 30-Day Virtual Physical Activity programs, including Fitness, Martial Arts, and Yoga.
Skillastics® is enjoyed by over 10 million students in more than 25,000 Physical Education and After School settings nationwide.
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