The Body Contested

March 2, 2018 Maggie Shane

Physical education changes with the times

The human body is a site for mighty contests of philosophy, medicine, the enforcement of laws, the waging of wars, the beautiful and the grotesque, human rights, politics, the conduct of a society, morality and mores, cultural expression and, of course, contemporary notions of health and wellness.

The central preoccupation of history, theology, art, the humanities and the sciences has been the body and its relationships to other bodies, its occupation of space, its functions, and its ideal form and function. The foregoing list of monumental human concerns might, at first reading, feel remote to the average school physical education curriculum or perennial game of dodgeball, but wherever the body takes precedence, it will remain the prize over which centres of power and authority will contend.

Peters (2004) expresses the problematic nature of the body in education this way: “The body has recently become a desideratum for a range of disparate studies in the arts, humanities and the sciences for a philosophical rescue operation that aims—against the dualisms bedevilling modern philosophy elevating the mind at the expense of the body—to rehabilitate the body as a site for reason, perception, knowledge and learning” (p. 13). Our contemporary philosophical and curricular convulsions over physical education’s role in promoting the wellness of students is an inheritance from ideas that ossified in the United Kingdom in the mid-19th century.

In 1847, philosopher, merchant and progressive social reformer Charles Bray (1811–1894) undertook to place “within the reach of all, at the cheapest possible rate, and in the shortest possible form” the value of what was generally described as “Physiology and Education” being the “most important and the least understood” (p. 3) aspect of educating children. Bray’s goal is one we would subscribe to today, 170 years later, simply to achieve health, strength and happiness among what he described as the “working classes.” Today we speak of “wellness,” a term loosely conveying notions of physical vitality, mental health, achievement of personal potential, work–life balance and an expectation of longevity.

Advocacy for wellness is hardly a modern construction. In the United States, Bray’s contemporary, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg), was an early advocate of wellness, which he viewed as the natural result of proper diet and exercise. For Bray and Kellogg and their acolytes, the headwaters of wellness were to be found in the body and the most important aspect of education was physical education. Health, insisted Bray (1847), was “the greatest blessing we can enjoy; without it all other blessings are comparatively useless” (p. 4). Teaching a student to read, write and do sums is of little use if moral education is lacking or if the body is unhealthy. Bray insisted that health and wellness were fundamental as much to the success of a society as to that of the individual.

“This kind of education,” Bray wrote, “will make a healthy and a temperate, an honest and industrious, a moral and intelligent individual” (p. 8) who will contribute positively to society primarily through the pursuit of healthful living and exercise. Indeed, the neglect of exercise courted melancholia, depression, neuroses, and low activity suggesting that those not engaged in regular exercise were apt to be a burden to their society. Longer lives could be achieved through exercise but also, and most importantly, a heightened quality of life would impart a “much better chance of enjoying our threescore years and ten” (p. 23).

Tin Soldier Approaches To Physical Education

In his examination of pedagogy for young boys, Moss (2001), provides a powerful description of what has become known as the “tin soldier” approach to exercising the body:

Marching and military drills were taught in schools across Canada by the early 20th century, and were often explained as effective ways to teach obedience, discipline and respect for law and order. This emphasis on drill and martial training increased in 1909–10 with the foundation of the Strathcona Trust, a fund established by Canada’s then high commissioner to Britain to promote physical training and create military cadet corps in schools across the country. (p. 96)

Drilling and obedience were also used to instill a sense of disciplined masculinity in non-British populations throughout the empire, including Canada. In 1909, Ontario minister of education George Ross maintained that “no other form of drill so effectively develops a manliness of form and bearing, as well as physical force and independence” (Alexander 2017). Although girls, too, were subjected to tin soldier methods, drills were less intense and were aimed at achieving different healthful outcomes that were deemed appropriate for young women, emphasizing proper breathing, flexibility and balance rather than endurance and strength.

The matter of physical education was overtly political and imbricated with the prevailing ethos of empire. As Morton (1978) reports, Minister of Militia and Defense Sir Frederick Borden (1896–1911) spoke of physical training as of “inestimable value to the welfare of our race in its effect upon future generations” (p. 62). By 1909, the chief inspector of Toronto’s public schools celebrated military-style physical training as essential to imparting discipline and loyalty to non-British immigrant children. The approach was applied to Canada’s Indigenous people in the same manner in residential and public schools throughout the nation (Fisher 2011, 92).

The Body In Motion—Movement Studies

During the Second World War, the fitness of bodies became a national concern addressed by federal legislation—the National Fitness Act of Canada—enacted in 1943 by the Liberal government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. As Canada emerged from the war, physical education pursued a new direction that gradually rejected the narrow range of activity and militaristic methods of the tin soldier approach. A new approach, that of “movement studies,” gained in influence.

Movement studies is not easily defined and has itself been a bone of contention among historians of physical education. In general, human movement studies is a body of knowledge that draws on aesthetics, physical education and the social sciences. It might include social dance, for example, or movement conducted in free play or games.

Movement studies stood in sharp contrast to the biomechanical drills imported to Canada beginning in 1911 and continuing through the post-war period as enshrined in the widely used British Syllabus of Physical Training for Schools (1909, 1911 and 1933). The syllabus emphasized posture, hygiene, health and folk dances. Movement study proponents pointed to the syllabus as a deterrent to student engagement. They argued that its emphasis on boys’ physical training was at odds with more progressive pedagogical practices. In retrospect, as Vertinsky and Gils (2017) write, the syllabus perpetuated “the values of the patriarchy, deprived girls’ physical education of material resources and ignored child-centered education” (p. 458).

Educators such as Arthur Lamb, director of the McGill School of Physical Education, advocated for education through the body rather than of the body. They argued the potential benefits of education through the physical, beyond drills in a gymnasium three periods a week. In such advocacy, Lamb was joined by Maury Van Vliet (founding professor of the University of Alberta’s Department of Physical Education), and Jesse Feiring Williams, whose influence was brought to Canada from the United States. Williams (1942) famously wrote that the “cultivation of the body for the body’s sake can never be justified” (p. 255).

On this new frontier of education through the body came the pioneering efforts of British female “games mistresses” many of whom brought progressive movement studies and child-centered teaching for both girls and boys with them to Canada in the 1950s.

“By telling children what to do and not how to do it, the method stimulated self-guided movement discovery and, it was believed, provided those kinaesthetic experiences that would ease children’s transition into learning more specific skill-and-sport-based movements at the secondary and/or high school stage” (Vertinsky and Gils 2017, p. 460–461).

The syllabus was shelved in favour of two important and influential texts that were newly available in Canada: Moving and Growing: Physical Education in the Primary School Part 1 (1952) and Planning the Program; Physical Education in the Primary School Part 2 (1953). Alberta was early to embrace rigorous and academic programs for physical education teachers. Van Vliet had established the Department of Physical Education at the University of Alberta in 1945. Education and pedagogical professional training had only been moved to the university from the normal schools a mere three years earlier in the spring of 1942. Van Vliet’s academic department grew quickly in the immediate post-war period, becoming the School of Physical Education in 1954 and finally evolving into a faculty in 1964.

But political and military influences on physical education, then as now, are never far from the planning and execution of curriculum. In 1957 the cultural shock of Sputnik—suggesting perhaps the military, engineering and scientific supremacy of the Soviet regime—fuelled a new moral panic over national strength, ingenuity, readiness and ability to compete in all arenas and on all levels.

Movement studies’ progress was called to an abrupt halt in the face of what Montez De Oca (2007) calls the “muscle gap” (p. 123) , a fierce anxiety of a society at risk through a lack of physical prowess and power.

Canada’s generally disappointing results at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics once again raised governmental concerns over youth fitness. Once again the federal government, this time lead by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives, brought its influence to bear through An Act to Encourage Fitness and Amateur Sport (1961). From that time to the present day, a federal cabinet post has existed under all federal governments and has overseen federal funds to encourage, support, advocate for and preside over physical activity programs nationwide.

It is no coincidence, then, that the history of the Health and Physical Education Council (HPEC) of the Alberta Teachers’ Association begins in early 1961 during this intensified interest and professionalization of the speciality. The arrival of specialist councils in 1960–1961 had a significant impact on the delivery of professional practice among Alberta teachers. Newly organized and newly funded councils were producing high-quality publications and research, offering inservices and conferences, and raising awareness of educational specialities, including physical education.

The HPEC’s constant objective, first enshrined in its constitution of 1962, ensured the council would remain open to advances in pedagogy and professional practice and to “improve instruction in health and physical education by increasing members’ knowledge and understanding in these fields” (HPEC 1962, 1).

From the earliest days of the first conferences, the HPEC strove to expand the perspectives of health and physical education teachers in Alberta. “Fitness for Modern Living” was the keynote address of the inaugural conference in 1962. The following year, the conference included addresses on relaxation, how to include physically challenged students in gym class, developmental considerations and the psychological impact of “phys-ed.” Teachers adopted and supported national fitness and physical education programs such as the ParticipACTION initiative.

The ParticipACTION Project, founded in 1973 and funded by Health Canada, had a straightforward goal: to bring Canadians into the fitness fold. To achieve this end, the program would progress in stages. The initial messaging of the program focused on several key messages with a common theme: make Canadians aware of their poor fitness and how to make beneficial lifestyle changes. The media campaign relied upon humour to get the message across. Canadians’ televisions were replete with “couch potatoes,” 60-year-old Swedes and other brilliant radio content. A decade later, ParticipACTION was a feature on the Canadian public policy landscape. Canadians were told, “Don’t Just Think About It—Do it!”

Now that Canadians were aware of their fitness challenges they needed tools and resources to move from thinking about healthy living to trying new ways to incorporate exercise. In 1989 Canadians were introduced to “Body Break,” a television campaign demonstrating simple activities that could be incorporated into their daily lives. Between 1991 and 1995 ParticipACTION was about eating well and physical activity.

ParticipACTION initiatives found their way into schools’ physical education curricula by mandating a series of physical fitness achievement tests that rewarded participants with gold, silver, bronze or red badges signifying their fitness level. A national focus on health and wellness achieved primarily through physical activity and sport persists as part federal government policy and part national consciousness. Its most recent manifestation, the Own the Podium initiative, seeks to ensure Canada’s elite athletes remain competitive in international meets, most significantly, the Olympics. Founded officially in 2005, Own the Podium had a mission to coordinate funding and training programs to achieve dominance at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games to be held on home turf in Vancouver. Today, Own the Podium is a federally funded not-for-profit organization dedicated to delivering as many Olympic and Paralympic medals as possible.

Physical Education As Medical Prescription

If we return to Bray’s treatise and advice on health and exercise, we will detect the seeds of what today is a fully-evolved philosophy of exercise as medical prescription. Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century, the cultural pursuit of longer and healthier lives through diet and exercise found evidence-based scientific support from the medical profession. We have returned to an approach made popular and advocated 170 years ago. True, we don’t necessarily do drills, but we do count “reps,” count steps with FitBits, seek out electronic monitors for blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and generally continue the tradition of physical activity driven by metrics. Our tin soldier is still with us, but disguised by a thin veneer of personal goals aimed at reaching new levels of achievement.

This microsurveillance of our exercise and health is now part of regular medical preventative care and, in many ways, has the effect of heightening a sense of personal responsibility for our health and well-being. Of course, FitBits are luxury items for many Canadians. Poverty continues to prevent one in six Alberta children from having a stable home environment, reliable meals, healthful nutrition or safe places to play and exercise. The means to achieve and maintain physical health are, for many, luxuries themselves.

Has this new technology-driven movement towards exercise as preventative medicine influenced modern physical education pedagogy and curricula? The answers will vary among phys-ed teachers provincewide. Nevertheless, the pattern of attitudes towards exercise as prescription and preventative medicine is impossible to ignore. Consider, as one example, the discourse in recent years on the subject of childhood obesity (a serious concern), guidelines on minimum daily doses of physical activity for children and the need to intervene now to avoid serious disease and pathology in later life.

In this contemporary moment, Vertinsky and Gils (2017) remind us that health professionals have been successful in prescribing exercise as preventative medicine. This trend, together with digital health tools, suggests phys-ed classes are poised to return to what Gard (2015) describes as a “performative, dull, repetitive, stressful, intellectually narrow and ethically dubious experience for students” (p. 840). However, when we consider phys-ed through the lens of wellness, it’s clear that Alberta physical education specialists are among students’ most important developmental leaders, mentors and coaches as they seek to contribute to the education of the whole student. As educator Sir Ken Robinson reminds us, “The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education” (Shepherd 2009).

Maggie Shane is the archives manager for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.


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Bray, C. 1847. The Education of the Body: An Address to the Working Classes. Coventry, UK: Merridew.

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Gard, M. 2015. “eHPE: A History of the Future.” Sport, Education and Society 19, no. 6: 827–845.

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Montez De Oca, J. 2007. “The ‘Muscle Gap’: Physical Education and US Fears of a Depleted Masculinity, 1954–1963.” In East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War, ed. S. Wagg and D. L. Andrews, 123–148. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Shepherd, J. 2009. “Fertile Minds Need Feeding.” An interview with Sir Ken Robinson. The Guardian. February 10. (accessed February 1, 2018).

Vertinsky, P., and B. Gils. 2017. “‘Watch Britain’: Movement Education, Transnational Exchanges, and the Contested Terrain of Physical Education in Mid-Twentieth Canada.” Journal of Sport History 44, no.3: 456–475.

Williams, J.F. 1942. The Principles of Physical Education. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders Company.

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