What Is a Brief History of Physical Education?

Modern physical education began in Germany in the 1800s with the opening of the first gymnasium. Sweden followed suit, then other European nations. By the early 20th century, many public schools worldwide had begun to incorporate physical conditioning into their curricula.

In the United States, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness was established in 1956 to promote physical fitness in schools. Under President John F. Kennedy, the program was expanded to include physical fitness testing for elementary school children and was accompanied by a significant public relations campaign. The Presidential Physical Fitness award, honoring students who exceeded certain standards on their physical fitness tests, was established in 1966.

In 1967, Congress passed a law providing for research and training in physical education for the handicapped. This was soon followed by the establishment of the Special Olympics in 1968; the first Special Olympics hosted 1,000 athletes from the United States and Canada. In 1975, federal funding was made available for physical education for students with disabilities.

An enormous change occurred in physical education in 1972 with the enactment of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational activity which receives funds from the federal government. Because most educational institutions receive some form of federal funding, Title IX meant women’s and girl’s sports had to be funded on a basis equivalent to men’s and boy’s sports.