The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Physical Education for Girls.

by Miss C. Thomas.
Outdoor Superintendent, the Horticultural College, Swanley.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 694-701

To explain what one means by physical education in a single article is hardly possible; but perhaps a few points for consideration can be suggested. Physical education includes all that has to do with the physical development and well-being of a child. For the present purpose this very extensive subject may be divided into three parts.

1. General hygienic conditions; such as diet, sleep, clothing, and the state of the soil. All these have to do with the home life of a child and naturally come under the direct jurisdiction of the parents.

2. School life; which includes, besides the ordinary lessons, much that has a direct influence on the physical side of the child's life, such as ventilation of the classrooms, their warming, and lighting; and also the postures of the body adopted during school hours.

3. Physical exercise during school time or at home; which bears or seems to bear more particularly upon the child's muscular development.

But while the first two groups are important and vast in themselves, they can here be merely mentioned. The third group is the one answering to the general acceptance of the term physical education and it is the one which forms the subject of this paper.

Physical exercise, as it is generally understood, includes: --

(a) Games, e.g., rounders, hockey, tennis, fives, cricket, etc.
(b) Sports, e.g., cycling, rowing, swimming, riding, driving, punting, etc.
(c) Gymnastics of all kinds, including boxing, fencing, etc.

It is so well recognized now that games form a necessary part of the child's life that it seems as if they need not be more than mentioned. It must be remembered, however, that all children indulge in games of a sort, while comparatively few are able to devote any time to sports, and that the former have a very great influence upon the physique generally, while the latter call for the exercise of special faculties and the development of special groups of muscles.

If possible then, let the children have time for some sport, or sports, as well as for the necessary games.

For many reasons a large proportion of the children attending schools will have to depend entirely upon games in the playground and a gymnastic or drill lesson for their physical exercise; though it must not be forgotten that elocution, recitation, reading and singing lessons are all very valuable physical exercises.

The gymnastic lesson, however enjoyable (and it nearly always is one of the favourite lessons, if not "the nicest lesson we have"), must be regarded as a lesson if it is conducted in the way which seems to be the right one.

What is known as musical drill, i.e., movements made to the time of a musical accompaniment, seems to me rather recreation than education, and should I think be discarded for these reasons. (1) It seems to deprive the children of one of the greatest benefits to be derived from a gymnastic lesson; for music is apt to take away the attention so that the child works mechanically. (2) A part of the time in every well-arranged gymnastic or drill lesson will be spent in performing what may be termed "general movements." These general movements necessitate the employment of large groups of muscles and include certain important trunk movements; they have therefore a great effect upon the large vessels and nerves and also upon the internal organs. The child should be allowed to take such movements as these in his own peculiar time and not be obliged to follow a time set by music.

One of the great aims of a gymnastic lesson is to induce a habit of prompt obedience to command, and this aim may be lost where music takes the place of a teacher's command. A well-arranged course of gymnastic lessons should consist of those movements which will bring about the harmonious development of the muscles and strengthen the nervous system. The movements I mean are those which the average child or girl can perform, and are by no means gymnastic feats. The development of the muscles brings about an improved condition of the circulation and strengthens the lungs. The lungs become stronger as a necessary consequence of the increased respirations and the assuming of the more correct posture. The general good effect of physical work upon the nerves is more difficult to account for, but it is probably due to the improved nerve-path acting upon the centre which it leads, as well as to the superior quality of the nutrient fluids supplying the nerve centres generally. The blood supply is better, partly on account of the increased elimination of the various waste matters from the body.

One may see almost immediately a child's improved position, but some time must elapse before the general health will be affected sufficiently to be noticed, and much will depend upon the previous training and condition of the child.

Many large schools only allow the time for one drill lesson a week, but some secondary schools arrange for two lessons, a week for each class. It is difficult to manage even this when so much has to be crowded into a child's school hours. The very small amount of time that can be spared for physical education makes it imperative to select only those movements which will have the greatest possible effect in a short time.

Precision is to be aimed at. Why should we not insist on girls having in their drill the advantage of what we many of us call the "making" of a boy? Why not prompt obedience and discipline in this work for girls as well as for boys? Simple unquestioning obedience is rarely to be met with now. Everywhere the lack of it is felt. Disobedience and carelessness in attending to directions is the great trouble encountered by all who have to train others.

Movements performed to words of command should, and certainly do help to form habits of obedience and promptness. Accuracy of detail inculcates a sense of truth and this will finally lead on to courage.

A course of good gymnastic lessons is often the means of making a so-called "silly" child good and more intelligent. Finding that simply obeying commands enables her to achieve some end--though only a movement--the child gains the courage to attempt harder tasks. It may be urged that such a child could have reached the same end by obedience in the classroom; but I will just remind those who think this, that there is much less scope for disobeying in a drill lesson than in any other, and that such a child coming into an atmosphere of general absolute obedience will, in most cases, adopt the method of the class. Also, these tiresome, idle, seemingly silly children require movement more than anything else, since their very defects are due to some physical weakness. Is it not often found that the very children who give most trouble over their lessons are the most helpful in all matters not actually lessons? Does not any good teacher employ such a child as much as possible out of the class? May it not be that the child needs the strengthening of the nerves mentioned just now? These little extra duties which entail a certain amount of movement may be regarded as fidgets made legitimate, but, in a measure, they are regulated movements and as such will prove beneficial to the child.

Another point with regard to the drill lessons which may be a means of helping these weaker children is probably due to the fact that no sustained mental effort is required of them, but only a concentrated application of the mind for a short time, and then immediate movement followed by another short effort and another act of obedience. The difference in the movements will afford just sufficient element of change to retain the interest of the pupils.

Parents could render the greatest possible assistance to teachers and indirectly would ensure their own children having the utmost advantages if they would encourage "flagging wills" to keep to the purpose in hand, especially in the case of growing girls. We all know the rather delicate girl who can't do half an hour's ordinary drill, but who can dance, or skip, or play some favourite game all the afternoon or evening. It is a little difficult in one way to believe such a child, or girl rather, when she says she "really can't." It simply means that she is accustomed to the skipping or dancing or whatever it may be, and that the nerves controlling the muscles used to perform these actions respond readily-- with little or no mental effort. The drilling movements might not involve as much muscular effort, or be in reality so fatiguing, but they do require attention, that is, effort of will, and here lies the real cause for fatigue. For such girls I would advocate short drilling lessons composed of easy free movements. To excuse these children from taking part in the drill lesson is to deprive them of valuable help towards the gaining of mental and bodily control.

Physical education is a means of helping towards the end of all education, and the influence which the gymnastic lesson has upon the mind should be realised if one is to obtain any correct knowledge of the subject. This is the great aim of physical education in its general sense, since it strives to help the mind to gain the victory over the body, not by ignoring the body and its needs, but by perfecting it as much as possible.

There are so many "Systems of Physical Culture," and some of their exponents profess to do so much with one special set of exercises or system of exercises, that one is bewildered and wonders where fiction will end and whether truth ever will come in. During fifteen years' experience in this subject I have seen many greatly improved and some well trained bodies. In each case a considerable amount of time and common sense was spent on the training, and the good results, which lasted, were to be attributed, I thought, quite as much to the steady purposing and doing of some exercises daily, as to the particular system of drill adopted.

Proper physical exercise forms a very important part of the training of "feeble-minded" children. Some of these children respond in a truly remarkable manner to a well thought out table of movements, if they are controlled while performing them and made to use them daily. Feeble-minded girls, even when they have reached the ages of fourteen to nineteen or twenty, can be taught to do quite good work in a gymnastic class, and even little children will do a great deal too, with the help of a teacher who observes the peculiarities of her class. Some of the little ones seem to possess a very fair amount of sympathetic imitation, and I have seen a few very good results brought about by taking such a child and putting her to work in a trained class of older normal children. In each case the child was allowed to work or not, just as she liked, provided she stood up with the rest. At first her movements were most erratic, but no notice was taken of her at all. No one laughed. The older normal children had too much kindliness of heart to do so. After some little time these children worked quite well and the effect of the movements, when almost correctly executed, upon their general condition was most marked. They improved so much in six weeks of this daily drill that one could hardly have imagined they were the same children. Of course the movements were all those which entailed the symmetrical use of large groups of muscles. The finer movements of hands and fingers could hardly be trained in an ordinary drill class, as they need individual attention and endless patience.

For training in the finer movements, occupations which necessitate the use of the hands are to be sought--needlework of all kinds, basket work, knitting, Kindergarten occupations, Sloyd, many of the smaller domestic duties and drawing are amongst those first thought of for this purpose. Drawing is of course so excellent in every way that it seems almost cruel not to ensure a child having some portion of its time allotted to this subject.

In my grouping of the various games, sports, physical lessons and gymnastics which make up the physical part of a child's life, it may have been noticed that dancing has been omitted. Dancing really is an art, and though it forms an excellent physical exercise, it needs accurate performance if it is to give any pleasure to the onlooker. It is not taught all the year round. Children attending secondary schools nearly all learn dancing for one term at least in the year; usually the term before Christmas. Some have the benefit of two terms' lessons, but few learn all the year round. It would be thought absurd to have only one or two terms' lessons in instrumental music, drawing, singing, or painting. Dancing needs much practice if it is to be well done, but it is the one art that gives pleasure and satisfaction to the learner from the very beginning. It is reserved for the winter term because it is the fashion to have dances and parties at that season, and the children get just help enough in this way to get along somehow. If dancing lessons were continued all through the year the children would be enabled to do something better than this. The elements of dancing could be taught and proper steps practised before putting them together for a dance. Some of the simpler dances, including the necessary steps, might well be introduced in the elementary schools. The playgrounds would form admirable open-air spaces for the older girls to dance in. If short dances at suitable times could be organized for them and always conducted under superintendence, it would bring a refining influence to many who now give vent to their animal spirits in a less pleasing way. I do not mean mere boisterous romps. I mean that the dancing taught in the elementary schools, as far as it ought to go, would tend to lessen the general roughness. Open-air dancing is very enjoyable and might be indulged in more than it is during the average English summer. Why do people nearly always go indoors to dance?

One certainly cannot blame the dancing mistresses and masters for the grotesque gyrations that go by the name of skirt dances, or "fancy dances," the latter being the more correct description of the two. Many mothers insist upon their daughters learning these special dances, quite ignoring the fact that no one can dance until they have been trained in the steps and movements. It is quite as absurd as it would be to insist on a beginner learning one of Beethoven's Sonatas before simple scales and five-finger exercises had been attempted. Yet this is constantly the kind of request a teacher of dancing has to comply with. Simple dancing is a very healthy and enjoyable means of recreation. It should accompany other forms of physical exercise, but it cannot take the place or do the work of a good drill lesson -- nor can the latter take the place of dancing. Real skirt dancing or good solo dancing of any kind is far too difficult and advanced for recreative purposes, and the training needed to make a good dancer is much too severe, even if the ordinary school-girl had the time.

At present teachers are expected to do very much for the children entrusted to them. Their "duties" are far-reaching and extend to matters rather to be delegated to the mother or nurse. Have parents nowadays any duties towards their children other than housing, feeding and clothing them?

Home influence is an enormous factor in the well-being or otherwise of an individual. If it were possible to trace back those qualities to their beginnings which form the character of the adult, it would be found that they owed their existence to home influence. School may do much for a child, but it ought not to be expected to do everything.

We all agree that the greatest benefits derived from school life are due to experiences which are incidental to the work of instruction, and not the least of these benefits is due to the sinking of the individuality and having to do and to bear for others.

Apart from organised games, the drill lesson more than any other will tend to produce these very qualities. A drill lesson is almost entirely made up of controlled movements; games allow a good deal of spontaneous movement on the part of the player. Spontaneity forms the charm and much of the value of games--discipline, strange as it may seem, forms the charm and value of a good drilling lesson.

Typed by Danielle Driscoll, Feb. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024