The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Physical Education of Children.

by Eric Pritchard, M.D.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 763-770

[Eric Pritchard was a pediatrician and leading figure in the movement to improve infant care.]

*Abstract of a lecture delivered March 24th, 1904, before the Harrow and Northwood Branch of Parents' National Educational Union.

The subject I have chosen to speak upon this afternoon is that of the physical education of children. By this term I do not exactly mean what is generally understood when we speak of education in its association with physical development, that is to say, I do not mean that form of development which has as its object the making of the individual into a particularly strong muscular type; I only propose to give you a few practical hints on the best methods for making your children develop into useful citizens, into individuals who by reason of their physical health and condition will be useful members of society, whatever be the position in life which they may be called upon to fulfil. From the point of view in which I regard it, the physical development of children covers a great deal more ground than the mere attainment of strong muscles and great powers of endurance. Indeed, under the present conditions of civilizations, excessive muscular development, so far from being an advantage to the individual, is very often an expensive luxury. Indeed, unnecessarily large muscles are very difficult to keep in perfect working order even during the hey-day of life, but how much more so in the sere and autumn leaf or winter of our lives. Take, for instance, the case of the man who perhaps for several years has kept himself in that perfect condition of physical training which is required of those who represent their University in the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race. What happens to a man of this type in later life when by force of circumstances he is compelled to live a sedentary and inactive life? The muscles atrophy from want of use and their place is occupied by tissues of the poorest quality which, if not of fat, consists of material which very closely resembles it. Tissue of this kind presents very little resistance to disease, and those who possess it are exceedingly liable to become what is known as gouty or rheumatic. One frequently hears it stated that So-and-so, who is middle aged and leading a sedentary life, is putting on flesh. As a matter of fact he generally is doing nothing of the kind. He is losing flesh or muscle and is putting on fat and connective tissues which are of a very much humbler and lower grade, and useless to him for the organic purposes of life.

The individual then under the circumstances of present-day life does not require greatly developed muscles; he requires a perfect and harmonious adjustment of the body taken as a whole. His muscles must be sufficiently strong to enable him to get about and to perform the work which is required of him, and his brain must be sufficiently developed to perform the intellectual work which is required for earning a living. If the brain is developed at the expense of the body or the muscles at the expense of the brain, the general harmony of the body is upset, and the individual suffers from the effects. The tendency at the present day is to cultivate the intellectual faculties at the expense of the muscles, and to substitute the expenditure of nervous energy for the expenditure of muscular force. Indeed, since the invention of the steam engine the conditions of human life in civilised countries have changed more than they had for thousands of years previously. And these changes have greatly upset the equilibrium of the human organisation. We suffer now from over-developed brains and under-developed bodies, and thus it is that examples of precocious intellectuality combined with incomplete physical development are by no means uncommon, and as a rule they add little to the general sum of human happiness and seldom make useful citizens.

The remarks which I am going to make this afternoon will be as practical as I can make them, having in view three main objects: first, to give you a few hints how to make the most of your children by methods of physical education; secondly, to indicate to you how permanent bodily deformities and constitutional maladies may be prevented by their early recognition and treatment during infancy and childhood; and thirdly, to expose certain fallacies which underlie some of our most cherished nursery traditions.

To carry out my object systematically it would be necessary for you to understand a great deal about the physiology and anatomy of the body. There is not time, of course, for me to attempt to refer to these matters even in outline. I shall only select a few of the most important features in the development of the human body. I shall briefly indicate some of the most important points required for securing strong bones, sufficiently powerful muscles and a harmonious adjustment of the circulatory, respiratory, and digestive systems, and finally I shall have a few words to say on the development of the brain and nervous system. Taking then, in the first place, the skeletal system, I would point out that there are two particular features in its development to which our attention should be directed. First, there is the material of which they are composed, and secondly, their shape. As regards the consistency of the bones the chief importance is that they should be hard and capable of resisting the strain to which they are normally exposed. No individual can be of satisfactory development unless he possesses bones of an adequate degree of hardness. The softness of bone is the chief cause of the many deformities which are seen in rickets and certain other diseases. Now, within limits, the hardness or consistency of the bones is a matter which is under our control and it is a matter of feeding more than anything else. This fact can be very clearly proved by the experimental feeding of animals, and a very interesting series of experiments has been carried out in America to show the influence of diet on the toughness or hardness of the bones under different methods of feeding. In the experiments to which I refer a litter of pigs was selected and half of them were fed on a sound physiological dietary; the other half were fed on what one may practically call a sugar diet. When the pigs reached maturity they were killed and their bones were examined. It was found that the thigh bones of the pigs which had been properly fed were about twice as strong as those of the pigs which had been fed on sugar. This experiment shows by analogy that the physical development of children must also depend very largely on their diet during the period of infancy, and if during this time of their life they are fed on patent and other sugary foods, they run a serious risk of possessing the soft bones which characterised the pigs which were fed in a similarly injudicious manner. No individual can be considered properly developed who does not possess a strong and rigid skeletal system.

The shape of the bones is also a matter of the greatest importance and the shape of the bones depends chiefly on the strains to which the bones are subjected during the periods of development. Normally shaped bones can only develop when the bones themselves are adequately hard and the strains to which they are exposed are normal. The normal strains are those due to the weight of the body operating on the various bones and the pull exercised by the various muscles during their activity. If the bones are soft they are particularly liable to be bent out of shape by even normal strains imposed upon them by the constant recurrence of particular positions assumed in sleeping, sitting, walking, writing, eating, etc. On the other hand, if the muscles do not act normally the bones may never be pulled into their proper shape, although they may be of a normal degree of hardness. It is therefore of the utmost importance that all the muscles should be normally exercised. The physical development of the child, if it does not actually commence with the physical training of the muscles and consequently of the bones, at least depends very largely upon this factor. To give an instance of the far reaching effects on the general bodily health of the proper formation of the bony structures of the body, I may mention the case of the thorax or chest. The weakly infant who by reason of feebly developed muscular powers never takes a full or vigorous breath and thus never properly inflates its lungs, grows up with narrow, contracted and often deformed chest--a condition of affairs which continues throughout life to exercise a most pernicious effect upon the action of the lungs and of the heart, predisposing to consumption and many other constitutional diseases. The importance of the development of the muscles is therefore manifest and one of the questions which I have to consider is how the muscles can be developed along normal lines. Muscles can only be made to increase in size by the exercise of their function, that is to say, by being used, and the only way to build them up of proper quality is to feed them with the food which is physiologically adapted for their making. Without entering into details on this matter, I may mention briefly that what one may call the bread and butter and farinaceous diet is most ill adapted for this purpose. Good muscles can only be made out of good nitrogenous or proteid food, and they must be used, but not over-used; over-development, as I have already indicated, is a danger after middle life. Thus again we see that the physical development or physical education of the infant or child is largely dependent on a proper dietary.

The circulatory system, of which the heart is the most important element, is another matter which requires attention at a comparatively early period of a child's existence. Neither the body nor the muscles can be maintained in an adequate condition of nutrition unless the heart and blood vessels are in proper condition for supplying blood to every part of the body. The heart must be strong and capable of performing extra work during emergencies. The heart which is never trained for such work always breaks down to a greater or lesser degree under unusual strain. The heart can only be trained to meet emergencies by giving it every now and then a little extra work to do, that is to say, the child should occasionally take sufficiently violent exercise to make it temporarily out of breath. For instance, it should not always walk sedately; it should be allowed to run about and kick a football or indulge in some such form of exercise as to call the reserve powers of the heart temporarily into requisition. The recognition of a good sound circulatory system is not always an easy matter; perhaps the best test of all is the extent to which a child can exercise itself without losing breath. One of the greatest fallacies is to believe that the rosy cheeks which are so often considered a sign of health are really indicative of a good circulation. They nearly always mean exactly the reverse. The second fallacy is to believe that cold feet imply a bad circulation. They generally mean that the digestion is out of order and that the child possesses an unstable, nervous system.

The training of the respiratory system is another matter of great importance. I have already mentioned the advantage of sound lungs. Another important point is the condition of the upper air passages, that is to say, of the nose and throat. If the child possesses adenoid growths and enlarged tonsils it will probably be a mouth breather, and owing to the obstruction to the free entry of air into the lungs, the lungs will never be properly expanded. For a child therefore to be properly developed the training of the breathing or respiratory functions is by no means an unimportant matter. The physical training is also to a very considerable extent dependent on the proper development of the digestive system. Without entering fully into this matter I may mention that the possession of sound teeth is a very important element in the general development, for without sound teeth it is difficult for the stomach to be sound. The development of the teeth is a more controllable matter than is generally supposed. I have not time, however, to enter upon this matter.

A very important feature for the possession of a well-balanced organisation is the possession of a small active stomach, and as Metschnikoff has forcibly shown, the possession of small intestines is of equal importance to the individual. Now the size of both the stomach and the intestines depends very largely, I might say wholly, on the amount of work the stomach and intestines have to do during infancy. The over-fed child and the child who is fed at frequent intervals with indigestible and unsuitable food will assuredly have a large and possibly a dilated stomach and large, distended bowels. Without entering fully into the disadvantages of a dilated stomach or distended intestines, I may mention that directly and indirectly these conditions predispose to a large number of constitutional diseases and to a general poisoning of the system by the decomposition of food which remains too long in the body. The physical health therefore of the individual depends in no small degree on a proper physical development of the stomach and of the bowel, and therefore once again I may remind you that the physical education of the child is very closely concerned with the question of dietary.

I now come to one of the most important elements in the supervision of the development of the growing child, namely, the care of the nervous system. Injudicious methods of management with regard to the training of the intellectual faculties very easily lead to the production of what is called a nervous temperament. Although it must be admitted that the nervous temperament is very largely a matter of heredity, nevertheless I believe that the nervous temperament is more frequently made than born. If the infant shows signs at an early period of its existence of possessing an unstable nervous equilibrium, no precaution which can be taken to prevent this unstable nervous system becoming more seriously disturbed should be neglected. The early indications of an unstable nervous system are sleeplessness, twitching of the face, rolling of the head, squinting, sensitiveness to sounds and to light. If any of these symptoms, single or combined, are noticed in the infant, it is necessary to exercise the greatest vigilance in protecting the nervous system from every source of irritation. One of the most frequent and the most disastrous forms of irritation to the infant is the irritation which arises from indigestion and colic, and this again is chiefly a matter of diet. In later life the child must be shielded from those forms of excitement which are associated with children's parties, railway journeys, theatres, and other spectacular performances, and last, but not least, the excitement attendant on an early intellectual education.

Although I have by no means exhausted all the points which should be attended to in the physical education of children, I am afraid that even as far as I have gone I may have embarrassed you with a superfluity of detail. The chief object of my remarks has been to make you hopeful of the proper physical development of your children. It is a matter which is very lately within your own power if you make use of the many scientific methods which can be applied to their upbringing. One cannot insist too strongly that by far the largest part of the misery in this world which is associated with deformities and constitutional disabilities might be prevented if proper knowledge were applied in the physical education of the individual during the early years of life. In conclusion, let me counsel you to learn how to recognise the early symptoms of unsatisfactory development, for it is only by recognising them that you will have a motive to prevent them running on into serious conditions. You cannot be too critical of your own children, but the less critical you are of other people's children the more friends you are likely to retain.

Typed by Wanda Collins, Mar. 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024