It wasn't just the exclusion of physical educators from participation in Olympic planning in 1928 that destroyed track and field as well as practically everything else of value in girls' physical education. Of far more importance was the misinterpretation of educational theories. This lack of understanding led them to scrap calisthenics as dull and regimented. Next, apparatus and tumbling were shelved. Gymnastics, the builder of basic bodies, arm, hand, shoulder, back and chest strength and the all-important flexibility so necessary to later skills, suddenly became too "hard" for children—and worse, "too dangerous." With hardly a ripple we dropped the black ink of fear into our entire school population—and it has been there ever since. This attitude exists only in America.
Freud's theory that many neuroses originated in childhood meant, they thought, that children had to be kept "happy" at all costs. So competition was outlawed (the losers wouldn't be "happy"). Sweat and strain imply discomfort, and discomfort isn't a "happy" state. The children could play on their own time. The trouble was they didn't, for this was the start of the radio-TV era. This thievery of time exists to this day. Put a stopwatch on your boy or girl in P.E. when he is engaged in actual body-building activities and you will find that, unless he is varsity or she is a cheerleader, it comes to about 13 minutes a week. How far do you think kids would get with 13 minutes of math a week? Bad as this is for boys, it is even worse for girls.
The best years for physical development and for the development of drive and courage are the first six. The second important period is from 6 to 12. At the time the first Council on Youth Fitness was formed in 1955,91% of our elementary schools did not even have a gym. After sputnik went up, school boards even scrapped some of those that existed to make more space for labs.
But a new time is at hand. At the New York State University in Cobleskill, N.Y., nursery school teachers are learning to teach real physical fitness classes to 2-, 3-and 4-year-olds. (Why do our skaters and swimmers do well in international competition? They start young, they work hard and someone is interested.)
The young teachers work with their small pupils on tumbling, calisthenics and apparatus. The children climb, jump, lift, push and run. Gone are the naps, gone the pampering and gone the chance to watch. In those classes every child does—and the teacher does. No wonder that they get and keep good-looking bodies—examples little ones can follow.
It's a strange thing, but all this hard work turns out to be fun. The children love it, they improve, they are proud of themselves and they are "happy." Those little people are on the way to healthy bodies that will support healthy minds capable of hard work and considerable accomplishment.
President, Institute for Physical Fitness
New York City