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Physical Education


B. Ann Boyce

Murray Mitchell


"Physical education is the study, practice, and appreciation of the art and science of human movement" (Harrison, Blakemore, and Buck, p. 15). While movement is both innate and essential to an individual's growth and development, it is the role of physical education to provide instructional activities that not only promote skill development and proficiency, but also enhance an individual's overall health. Physical education not only fulfills a unique role in education, but is also an integral part of the schooling process.

Historical Perspectives

From the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, three nations–Germany, Sweden, and England–influenced the early development of physical education in the United States. German immigrants introduced the Turner Societies, which advocated a system of gymnastics training that utilized heavy apparatus (e.g., side horse, parallel and horizontal bars) in the pursuit of fitness. In contrast, the Swedish system of exercise promoted health through the performance of a series of prescribed movement patterns with light apparatus (e.g., wands, climbing ropes). The English brought sports and games to America with a system that stressed moral development through participation in physical activities. The influence of these three nations laid the foundation for sport and physical education in America.

The 1800s were an important time for the inclusion of physical education in schools across America. The Round Hill School, a private school established in 1823 in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first to include physical education as an integral part of the curriculum. In 1824 Catherine Beecher, founder of the Hartford Female Seminary, included calisthenics in her school's curriculum and "was the first American to design a program of exercise for American children" (Lumpkin, p. 202). She also advocated the inclusion of daily physical education in public schools. However, physical education was not offered in the public schools until 1855, when Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first city school system to offer this type of program to children.

In 1866 California became the first state to pass a law requiring twice-per-day exercise periods in public schools. Beecher's influence started the American system of exercise, and, along with her contemporaries Dio Lewis, Edward Hitchcock, and Dudley Allen Sargent, she was an early leader in physical education. In the profession's early years, between 1855 and 1900, there were several debates, referred to as the Battle of the Systems, regarding which system (American, Swedish, German, or English) could best provide a national physical education program for America.

During the 1890s traditional education was challenged by John Dewey and his colleagues, whose educational reforms led to the expansion of the "three R's" to include physical education. It was also during this time that several normal schools (training schools for physical education teachers) were established. All of these schools offered a strong background in the sciences that included courses in anatomy and physiology, with many of the early professors holding medical degrees.

In 1893 Thomas Wood stated that "the great thought of physical education is not the education of the physical nature, but the relation of physical training to complete education, and then the effort to make the physical contribute its full share to the life of the individual" (National Education Association, p. 621). During the early twentieth century, several educational psychologists, including Dewey, Stanley G. Hall, and Edward Thorndike, supported the important role of children's play in a child's ability to learn. In line with the work of Wood in physical education, and the theoretical work of prominent educational psychologists, The New Physical Education was published in 1927 by Wood and Rosalind Cassidy, who advocated education through the physical.

This position supported the thesis that physical education contributed to the physical well-being of children, as well as to their social, emotional, and intellectual development. However, Charles McCloy argued against this expanded role of physical education, arguing that education of the physical, which emphasized the development of skills and the maintenance of the body, was the primary objective of physical education. The testing of motor skills was a part of McCloy's contribution to physical education, and his philosophy of testing paralleled the scientific movement in education.

The evolution of physical education, along with other educational professions, reflected contemporary changes in society. Throughout the early twentieth century, into the 1950s, there was a steady growth of physical education in the public schools. During the early 1920s many states passed legislation requiring physical education. However, shifts in curricular emphasis were evident when wars occurred and when the results of national reports were published. For example, as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States' entrance into World War II, the emphasis in physical education shifted from games and sport to physical conditioning. Similar curricular shifts were noted in 1953 when the Kraus-Weber study found that American children were far less fit than their European counterparts. As a result of this report, the President's Council on Physical Fitness was established to help combat the falling fitness levels of America's youth.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, physical education at the elementary level experienced tremendous growth. Today, many physical education programs emphasize overall fitness, referred to as wellness, as well as skill development. However, since the 1970s the number of schools offering daily physical education has drastically decreased–1995 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a drop from 43 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995.


In the 1990s three national reports–The Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health (1996), Healthy People 2000 (1990), and the CDC's Guidelines for School and Community Programs (1997)–have focused on the deplorable physical condition of Americans. These reports cited physical inactivity as a national health risk, based on statistics such as: (1) 13 percent of young people are classified as overweight; (2) only half of all youths are physically active on a regular basis (and this percentage decreases with age); and (3) inactivity and poor diet cause at least 300,000 deaths per year.

These reports advocated the need for daily physical activity, citing the following health benefits from moderate participation: improved strength and endurance, healthier bones and muscles, weight control, reduced anxiety and increased self-esteem, and, often, improved blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Physical education is the major vehicle for improving the health and fitness of the nations' youth. Healthy People 2000 recommended the increase of daily physical education to a level of at least 50 percent of students in public schools by the year 2000.

In addition to the health benefits, cognitive performance can also be enhanced through physical education. There is a growing body of research that supports the important relationship between physical activity and brain development and cognitive performance. C. Edwin Bencraft (1999) found that "sensory and motor experiences play a prominent role in reinforcing … synaptic connections and neural pathways" (p. 45). Eric Jensen's 1998 research revealed that the cerebellum is not solely dedicated to motor activity, but includes both cognitive and sensory operations. Further, Jensen points out the strong relationship of the cerebellum to memory, perception, language, and decision-making, citing physical activity as a way to enhance cognition. In a summary of research findings, Bencraft suggests providing the following applications that could increase cognitive performance: (1) challenging motor tasks before the age of ten can increase cognitive ability due to a heavier, more dendrite-rich brain;(2) aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning by increasing the number of capillaries serving the brain through the delivery of more oxygen and glucose and removal of carbon dioxide; (3) cross-lateral movements increase the communication ability between the brain's hemispheres; and (4) physical activity reduces the production of stress chemicals that inhibit cognitive processing.

From the mounting evidence favoring physical activity, it appears that physical education in schools plays a dual role in serving both mind and body. The challenge to physical educators will be to implement programs that address the health crisis while building the child's mind through physical activity.


According to the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD), a quality physical education program for grades K–12 includes instructional periods totaling at least 150 minutes per week at the elementary level and 225 minutes at the secondary level, qualified physical education specialists, and adequate equipment and facilities. In general, the curriculum should consist of: (a) instruction in a variety of developmentally appropriate motor skills that challenge students to develop physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally; (b) fitness activities that educate and help students understand and improve or maintain optimal fitness levels; (c) instruction in concepts that lead to a better understanding of motor skills and fitness development; (d) opportunities to engage in experiences that enhance cooperation and develop multicultural awareness; and (e) experiences that foster the desire for lifelong participation in physical activity.

More specifically, the elementary curriculum should include many enjoyable activities that lead to the acquisition and refinement of fundamental motor patterns (e.g., running, skipping, jumping, catching, throwing, striking, balancing) that can be applied in game, sport, dance, and gymnastics contexts. The movement-based curriculum proposed and adapted by George Graham, Shirley Ann Holt/Hale, and Melissa Parker in 1998 introduces skill themes (fundamental motor patterns) and movement concepts that describe how a movement is performed (e.g., speed, direction, relationship). This curriculum pattern teaches children to move while challenging them to explore, modify, and refine motor patterns, and it can be used as a vehicle for teaching physical education. The activity based approach is the most common curriculum pattern used in both middle schools and high schools. This curricular pattern uses activity units in sport, fitness, and dance (e.g., volleyball, aerobic dance, swimming) to teach physical education.

Middle school curriculums should include a wide variety of team and individual sports utilizing motor skills introduced and refined at the elementary level. High school curriculums should focus on lifetime sports skills (e.g., golf, tennis, aerobic dance), with a secondary emphasis on team sports. During the high school years, students should become highly proficient in one (or more) sport and/or fitness activity of their own choosing. However, regardless of the level of schooling, fitness forms the base of the curriculum and it is an integral part of the program.

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

School accountability, a major trend of the 1990s, has driven the need for national assessment (testing) and standards. This trend has become an issue and has created debate throughout education, including physical education. Proponents on both sides have valid points to make. Those who oppose national testing point out the need for people to enjoy physical activity. They believe that testing does not foster the desire for lifelong participation. In contrast, proponents of testing think it would parallel work completed in other disciplines, such as math and science, while helping students gauge their progress towards a national standard for fitness and/or skill competence.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has provided guidelines in the form of grade-level benchmarks, as well as an operational definition of the physically educated person. Such a person is skillful in a variety of physical activities, physically fit, participates regularly in physical activity, knows the benefits of physical activity, values physical activity and its contributions to a healthy lifestyle, respects diversity, and acts in a socially responsible manner. The question remains, however, of how much direction and specificity in the form of standards and assessment are needed.

In many school programs and business settings, the term wellness has replaced fitness and health. In general, this term refers to optimal health and well-being, but it has been broadened to include the dimensions of emotional, mental, spiritual, social, and environmental well-being.

There are many issues that are of interest to all educators, issues that pose a challenge to all of those who seek to teach children. These include discipline problems, student drug abuse, violence, insufficient resources, lack of parental support for education, large classes, teacher burnout, and perhaps most importantly, a concern for the health and well-being of all children.

By far the greatest issue facing physical education in K–12 institutions is the reduction of time in the curriculum allotted to this important subject. The need for daily physical education is obviously important for the well-being of students, but it presents a dilemma for those who must balance academics, accountability, and what is best for the child's overall education. Given the support for the physical and psychological contributions of exercise, along with the health risks associated with inactivity, it is clear that daily physical education plays a crucial and unique role in each child's cognitive, psychological, and physical development.


AMERICAN ALLIANCE FOR HEALTH, PHYSICAL EDUCATION, RECREATION AND DANCE. 1999. Speak II: Sport and Physical Education Advocacy Kit II. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

BENCRAFT, C. EDWIN. 1999. "Relationship between Physical Activity, Brain Development and Cognitive Performance." Brain Research and Physical Activity: Maryland Physical Education Study Group Report. SPEAK Kit, Vol. 2. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

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CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION. 1997. Guidelines for School and Community Programs: Lifelong Physical Activity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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JENSEN, ERIC. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

LUMPKIN, ANGELA. 1994. Physical Education and Sport: A Contemporary Introduction, 3rd edition. St. Louis: Mosby.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR SPORT AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION. 1992. The Physically Educated Person. Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR SPORT AND PHYSICAL EDUCATION. 1995. Moving into the Future: National Standard for Physical Education. St Louis, MO: Mosby.


SWANSON, RICHARD A., and SPEARS, BETTY MARY. 1995. History of Sport and Physical Education in the United States, 4th edition. Madison, WI: WCB Brown and Benchmark.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES. 1990. Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion Disease Prevention Objectives. DHHS Publication Number PSH 91-50212. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES. 1996. Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


In the United States, teacher preparation in physical education originally had close links to medicine. A program of study would commonly include anatomy, physiology, health, first aid, history and philosophy, educational psychology, and various physical skills–from gymnastics through dance, games, and sport. Major shifts across time have largely involved the length of programs of study on each of these topics.

A Brief History

The early roots of physical education teacher preparation in the United States can be traced to the northeastern part of the country during the latter part of the 1800s. In 1952 Charles Bucher described a ten-week course at the Normal Institute of Physical Education in Boston (founded by Dio Lewis) as graduating the nation's first class of physical education teachers in 1861. A one-year course of study was developed in 1866 in New York City under the name of the North American Turnerbund. The Sargent School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the direction of Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent, began preparing teachers in 1881, and in 1886 the Brooklyn Normal School for Physical Education was opened.

In 1886 the International Young Men's Christian Association College at Springfield Massachusetts began operations. This institution, which evolved into the Springfield College, began with the mission to prepare physical education teachers for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Later, degrees at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels for study in physical education were awarded by this institution. In general, the preparation of physical education teachers in the late 1800s and early 1900s ranged from as little as two months to as much as five years.

Prior to World War I, preparation to teach physical education was primarily completed in normal schools. The poor condition of many of the men in the country who were called to serve in the war heightened interest in physical education. As a result of such concerns, there was some form of compulsory public school physical education in thirty-eight states by 1930.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the requirements for physical education teachers vary somewhat by state, since education is governed at that level rather than by national standards. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has published guidelines for beginning teachers in an attempt to provide some professional leadership. These guidelines are not binding on either institutions preparing teachers or on state governments, where the responsibility of licensing teachers rests. In a collaborative effort with one of the major accrediting agencies for teacher preparation programs, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), NASPE has created guidelines for programs seeking accreditation in the preparation of physical educators for initial certification.

Current Structure

Physical education teacher education (PETE) programs in the United States are designed around at least three models and five conceptual orientations. One model is delivered at the undergraduate level and two at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, programs are usually delivered in a four-year program with course work in three major areas: general education (e.g., the broad concepts in many fields that the general public associates with an educated citizen), professional education (e.g., concepts specifically linked with what is known about teaching and learning), and content knowledge (e.g., the information unique to the field, often represented in a variety of subdisciplinary areas such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, and motor learning). The actual number of credits and sequence of these courses varies and is often dependent upon the philosophical orientation of the program and resources available to the faculty.

One type of graduate PETE program has evolved from various reform efforts, including the Holmes Group initiative. In this approach, students study for a four-year degree in the content area supporting the type of licensure they seek. In physical education, an undergraduate degree could be in sport studies, exercise physiology, biomechanics, or some other related subdisciplinary field. At the master's level, students then study the pedagogical content to learn how to deliver the content knowledge to students. This approach is a response to perceived needs of teachers to be better prepared in the content knowledge of their field.

A second type of graduate PETE program is sometimes characterized as a response to teacher shortages. In this approach, candidates have typically acquired an undergraduate degree in some field other than physical education. Graduate programs for this approach must include a combination of content knowledge and professional education. Students changing careers are often attracted to this model.

In 1990 Sharon Feiman-Nemser described five conceptual orientations to teacher education, regardless of the model; three years later Judith Rink provided adaptations to these models using examples appropriate to PETE programs. Both authors suggest that the conceptual orientation guides the delivery of content. In contrast to Feiman-Nemser, however, Rink suggests that it is possible for parts of each orientation to exist in any program.

The academic orientation holds that the subject matter knowledge is central. The focus of these programs is on games, sports, dance, and fitness knowledge. In the practical orientation, experience and conventional wisdom are the focal points. Field experiences are key parts of these programs, where students are given ample practice time with practice-proven methods of teaching. The technological orientation has also been characterized as systematic, science-based instruction where there is an emphasis on mastering teacher effectiveness skills. Instruction is based on research-based teaching for student skill development. The personal orientation is a more humanistic approach where the teacher and learner are considered as people first; teaching, learning, and content are secondary concerns. Individualization, nurturing personal meaning, and growth are hallmarks of this approach to teacher education. In the critical/social orientation, the relationship between schools and the structure of society becomes central. Attention is drawn to the moral obligations of teachers to include all members of society, regardless of age, gender, race, religion, skill level, or socioeconomic level.

Michael Metzler and Bonnie Tjeerdsma (2000) suggest that teacher educators have a responsibility to assess the effectiveness of what they do, with whatever model or conceptual orientation is selected. They suggest that few teacher educators have spent much effort doing this type of assessment. In an effort to be of assistance, Metzler and Tjeerdsma provide a variety of tools for assessing and improving program delivery.

Daryl Siedentop and Larry Locke provided an alternative perspective on assessing PETE programs in 1997. They describe the minimum conditions necessary for the effective operation of a PETE program, and also suggest that the responsibility of PETE programs goes beyond educating new recruits and includes a duty to "create and sustain good school programs" (p. 27). These authors go on to lament that few PETE faculty have assumed any responsibility for the quality of programs in schools, instead adopting an "us" (e.g., faculty in higher education) versus "them" (e.g., teachers in the K–12 schools) mentality. The outcome of this adversarial relationship has been a declining level of competent program delivery, with national health-related consequences. In 1990 John Goodlad identified a similar concern when he suggested that the reform or renewal of schools, teachers, and teacher preparation programs has to occur simultaneously.

In-Service and Staff Development

Most states require some sort of ongoing accumulation of continuing education credits for teachers to retain their licensure. Most school districts create opportunities for continuing education related to topics relevant to the purposes of schools and needs of students in their community. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often too generic to address the specific needs of physical educators, and are often perceived to be ineffective.

Beyond state and school district requirements, there is a key challenge for licensure programs: convincing graduates that their preparation to become true professionals has not ended, but has just begun. Without an internal commitment to ongoing professional growth, few in-service or staff development efforts are effective at eliciting change. Indeed, although specific examples of successful change efforts can be cited, Linda Bain (1990) describes practice in physical education as "generally resistant to change"(p. 771).

Michael Eraut (1987) describes four approaches to in-service education that can be used to categorize some of the work in physical education. The defect approach involves behavioral training to build skills that teachers lack. In physical education, targets of this approach have included different verbal behaviors (e.g., feedback, prompts, questions, use of student names, etc.), teacher movement, task selection, and others. The growth approach is about helping teachers seek greater fulfillment, rather than helping them simply become competent. In physical education, this approach is difficult to distinguish from the problem-solving approach, where efforts are made to help teachers diagnose problems in their own instructional setting. Program research from places like Teachers College at Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts would be examples of this kind of in-service program. Lastly, the change paradigm involves efforts to make changes in programs that are responsive to greater societal needs. Attention to gender equity, mainstreaming, and nondiscrimination would be examples of this work in physical education.

Trends and Controversies

The most critical concern facing physical educators in the United States is the viability of physical education programs as a required subject in schools. As opportunities for advanced placement courses; electives in art, music, and foreign languages; and other varied courses have occurred, time in the required curriculum for physical education has declined. There are consequences to this on at least two levels. First, the health of the nation is at risk when the most equitable delivery system for ensuring active lifestyles is curtailed. Second, there is a declining need for teacher education programs when there are fewer teaching positions available for program graduates.

Related to the time available for physical education programs in schools is an ongoing debate over the most appropriate content for programs. In some states (e.g., West Virginia and Florida) there is a major emphasis on student performance on fitness tests as an indication of physical education program effectiveness. In other states (e.g., Missouri) there is more of an emphasis on the demonstration of written competence in health-related fitness knowledge. In at least one other approach (South Carolina), there is an attempt to hold teachers accountable for fitness levels and fitness knowledge, as well as out of-class behaviors and movement competence. There are obvious implications for teacher preparation programs in each of these states with respect to what will be expected of program graduates. It is also worth noting that none of these approaches is an exact match with NASPE guidelines.

Part of the debate over appropriate content for teacher preparation can be traced back to a classic 1964 work by Franklin Henry, where physical education was first conceptualized as an academic discipline in the United States. For the first time, the study of human movement spawned viable areas of study, leading to degrees and careers other than teaching. Today, locating departments of physical education in colleges and universities is a challenge, partly because such departments can go by so many different names: 114 have been counted by P. Stanley Brassie and Jack Razor, including Biomechanics, Kinesiological Studies, Kinesiology, Sport Science, and Sport Studies, to cite just a few. Approximately half of these departments are in colleges of education, while others are in colleges of liberal arts, applied sciences, health, or elsewhere. This identity crisis has lead to marginal status for physical educators at all levels.

A common trend in teacher preparation programs is for early and frequent field-based experiences for students. The challenge is to find (or create) placements where desirable practices are being modeled. An additional challenge is to determine the amount and type of training required to prepare school-based supervisors.

The last major controversy that warrants mention in teacher preparation involves determining the most appropriate level for initial licensure. In some institutions (e.g., the Ohio State University), initial licensure in physical education is only available at the graduate level. In other schools (e.g., University of South Carolina), initial licensure is available at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In most of the rest of the country, initial licensure is predominantly delivered at the undergraduate level. There is no definitive evidence on which (if any) of these approaches is the most appropriate way to prepare physical education teachers.


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