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Arthur Morse
September 20, 1954
They lack strength and stamina because schools concentrate on "stars" and neglect those who need physical education the most
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September 20, 1954

How Fit Are Our Kids?

They lack strength and stamina because schools concentrate on "stars" and neglect those who need physical education the most

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This week more than 30,000,000 American children will return to their classes in elementary, junior and senior high schools. Their minds, despite overcrowding and understaffing, will be adequately trained. But what about their bodies?

Americans like to think of themselves as an athletic people among whose youth physical fitness can be taken for granted. What we fail to realize is that a large proportion of our youth is growing up pitifully weak in stamina, seriously neglected by the average school program. The full meaning of certain widely publicized and alarming statistics has yet to sink in:

During the Korean war 47% of American draftees—nearly half of all young men called up—were rejected as physically or emotionally unfit.


In a recent comparison of European and American children between 6 and 19 conducted by Dr. Hans Kraus and Mrs. Ruth P. Hirschland of New York University, 57.9% of the American children—more than half of thousands tested—failed to achieve minimum standards of muscular strength and flexibility. Only 8.7% of the European children failed.

One of our real troubles is that the concept of the big-time sports competition has captured the imaginations of too many teachers and parents right down to the grade-school level. Our schools are concentrating on the star system, oblivious to the many that this excludes, particularly those who need physical education most of all—the ones who are not "naturals." In New York City, for example, only an estimated 5% of all school children participate in school sports.

The big-time sports concept also puts our younger children under strains which are far beyond their childish capacities. We know that heart and lungs and other organs do not keep pace with the body growth in weight and height of children, yet we cheer them on to give their all as though they were grown-up players. The same is true of tackle football for 12-to 15-year-olds, a practice which is spreading in our schools. Of 242 doctors who were recently questioned about interscholastic football for this age group, all but 22 were against it.


Basketball too has invaded the ranks of the young. In many places, elementary-school competition for those who have star potentialities is on the rise. In South Dakota, for instance, coaches are assigned to grade schools to spot and develop likely prospects for high-school competition. Indiana carries basketball in schools to enthusiastic extremes, making high-school games into really big-league affairs. Last year more than 1,380,000 spectators watched the state high-school tournament, which grossed $750,000. Some of the high-school teams played two games a day for three successive weekends, a pace not even matched by pros.

Nowhere, however, is the sad physical state of the Union more dramatically illustrated than in swimming. This is an ideal body-building sport, and a vital skill in war and peace as well. Facilities for it are ample. Yet of America's 80,000,000 bathers, only 12% know how to swim. And less than one American school in every 10 offers swimming instruction.

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