When I attended East Elementary School in Alabama, we all loved our PE classes. Mr. Bradford was our PE teacher. He was the typical 1960s “coach” with the gray sweatshirt and the whistle around his neck and the obligatory flattop haircut. He led us in relay races, square dancing, parachute play, kickball, and (our favorite) dodgeball. All of this was in the name of getting us physically fit, with the concept that along with our minds, our growing bodies needed to work out as well.
That concept was fairly new in education historically. One of the first and loudest advocates for the inclusion of physical education in school curricula was an Englishman with the wonderful name of William Penny Brooks. Brooks was a doctor, lecturer, and proponent of all kinds of sports. He was the primary cheerleader for adding a physical component to education in Britain in the mid-1800s.
Brooks believed strongly that getting children out in the open air, away from the confinement of soot and smoke-filled houses, would bring health benefits to the entire population. Thus, he championed all sorts of sporting events and competitions in his area of the West Midlands. He soon realized that the kids were absolutely starving for physical activity that was not work-related. Part of the joy of being young, Brooks came to believe, was the vim and vigor that youth produced more than any other age of life. Pouring that energy into physical activity made for healthier young people and therefore heathier adults. In fact, he said, the younger kids would engage in PE, the better not only their health but also their mental state would be throughout their lives.
These concepts can be traced directly to Britain adopting physical education as part of the daily school life in the nation. The United States and other nations soon followed. The idea that young people could be given the chance to have time set aside for nothing other than to play, to exercise, to enjoy the outdoors was seen as being on the cutting edge of educational reform. But the benefits were too obvious.
Brooks said he arrived at this concept in part from being somewhat of a classical history hobbyist. He greatly admired the ideals of the Greek and Roman philosophers who expounded a well-rounded person made for the best type of citizen.
His town of Much Wenlock became the host of a series of organized sporting events centering around and created to draw attention to Brooks’ theory of a healthier body meaning a healthier mind. He invited athletes from around the country to come and compete in his sporting extravaganza. One thing Brooks insisted upon was that common workingmen be allowed to take part in his events. This created quite a scandal among people of the upper middle class. That workingmen could be allowed to run and jump and engage in “gentlemen’s games” with others not of their social class was unheard of in that time. But, again, Brooks persisted, and his trust was rewarded. No outlandish behavior occurred, and his events continued for many years in the mid and late 1800s.
News of these events spread across Britain and even to Europe. A member of the French aristocracy heard of these PE concepts that Brooks propounded, and he traveled to Much Wenlock to see what Brooks was up to. What he witnessed was amazing. Kids and young people from all walks of life were enjoying exercise and simply being outside in the clean air. This aristocrat was so taken with the idea of these athletic competitions that he returned to France determined to do something with them.
Turns out, the Frenchman was Pierre de Coubertin, the man who would turn Brooks’ ideas into a revival of the Olympic Games.