Physical Education

George Jay School, 1949
BC Archives photo I-02220

During the nineteenth century, physical education was very limited in British Columbia.1 In 1891 calisthenics was placed on a list of optional subjects for the public schools. Drill routines and gymnastics were popular, but there were few facilities devoted to physical education. The Pemberton Gymnasium in Victoria was unique. Built in 1894 with funds bequethed in the estate of J. D. Pemberton, it was the first public school gymnasium in the province.2

During the early 1900s, military preparedness had a profound impact on physical education in British Columbia. In 1912, physical education became a compulsory subject in British Columbia schools. Funding for physical education came as a result of the province's acceptance of the Strathcona Trust in 1910. Lord Strathcona provided $500,000 to the Militia Department of the Canadian government and the Dominion government then agreed to pay the interest at four percent to the physical education programs of deserving provinces. The trust established by Lord Strathcona had three major purposes for physical education: (1) to incorporate physical training as an integral part of the curriculum in all schools, (2) to form cadet corps, and (3) to provide teacher training in physical education. Section 5a of the constitution of the Strathcona Trust outlines the principles regarding physical education which must be followed by schools intending on collecting money from the Strathcona Trust:

His object being not only to improve the physical and intellectual capabilities of the children, by inculcating habits of alertness, orderliness and prompt obedience, but also to bring up the boys to patriotism, and to a realization that the first duty of a free citizen is to be prepared to defend his country, the intention of the Founder is that, while physical training and elementary drill should be encouraged for all children of both sexes attending public schools, special importance is to be attached to teaching of military drill generally to all boys, including rifle shooting for boys capable of using rifles. All boys should so far as possible, be made to acquire a fair acquaintance while at school, with military drill and rifle shooting.

During the advanced session of the Provincial Normal School in Vancouver (January to June 1911), a course was provided on the instruction of physical training. One hundred and forty-three prospective teachers completed this training course, taught by a non-commissioned militia officer, and obtained certificates of qualification as instructors of physical training in public schools. In addition, a course in military drill was provided to twenty-one male teachers at the Royal School of Instruction in Esquimalt. All of these teachers passed the required examination and were each granted the rank of Cadet Instructor.

By 1914, 1,279 teachers and prospective teachers had qualified as physical training instructors.9 However, only those teachers who completed the military drill course were qualified to teach the drill portion of the physical education curriculum. Since very few teachers, all of whom were male, held this qualification, military personnel, who were trained and capable of the regimented drill and practice required by the trust, were utilized as instructors of physical training in public schools. In the city of Vancouver, Sergeant-Major A. C. Bundy was responsible for physical training; in Victoria, Sergeant-Major Ian St. Clair was in charge.10

Military personnel instructed children in orderly and physically challenging calisthenics and drills derived form the Trust's Syllabus of Physical Exercise for Schools. According to that syllabus, "the object of physical training is to help in the production and maintenance of health in mind and body." In addition, physical training should "have the effect…of developing in the children a cheerful and joyous spirit, together with the qualities of alertness, decision, concentration, and perfect control of brain over body."11 The teaching of physical training and drill was supplemented by the use of the British Syllabus of Physical Exercise for Public Elementary Schools which was printed in 1904.12 Both of these syllabi were based on the Swedish system of gymnastics developed by Per Henrick Ling and were used extensively in schools.

With the onset of World War I, enthusiasm for military drill and physical training was high. However, there was a form of physical education distinct from military drill being taught even throughout the war years.13 Organizations such as the YMCA started youth clubs and organized games in gymnasiums throughout Western Canada. As a result of the YMCA's programs, many youths were introduced to the non-military aspect of physical education. This filtred into public schools and had a significant impact on their physical education programs. In addition, when Canada entered the First World War, military training was often substituted with non-military training in schools because the instructors of military training went off to fight. This left the teaching of physical education to the teachers who were often women not trained in teaching the physical training program of the Strathcona Trust. This initial break from military emphasis helped British Columbia to start the evolution from physical training to physical education following the war.14

After the war, there was a reaction against the military drills associated with the Strathcona Trust syllabus. At a conference of provincial education superintendents in 1918, many recommendations were made to develop a physical education program for trainee teachers. The next year (1919) a new health education program was recommended which included elementary hygiene, elementary physiology, recreational exercises, and physical training. Following these conferences, the Strathcona Trust executives met with various provincial committees. The Strathcona Trust was accused of not keeping up with developments in the field of physical education. The outcome of these meetings was the introduction of the Syllabus of 1919 and an amendment that allowed provinces to use their portion of the Strathcona Trust fund in whatever way they pleased to encourage physical education. This new syllabus made it much easier for classroom teachers to teach physical education and consequently increased the popularity of physical education in schools.15

In the mid 1920s, teachers called for better training in the area of physical education, particularly around team games. Their voice was echoed by the Putman-Weir Commission report in 1925 when the commissioners recommended that organized play receive more attention, that teachers be specifically trained to teach physical education, and that physical education be given a special place in the school curriculum.16 These, along with other recommendations, reflected the spirit progressivism that was making its way into B.C. schools. The Putman-Weir Report, combined with an improved economy and a population boom, caused interest in physical education in schools to increase. Significant gains were made in the early 1930s, when Dr. G. M. Weir (one of the authors of the 1925 report) became Minister of Education.

In the Annual Report of the Public Schools for 1935-36, the superintendent of Vancouver Schools wrote: "for years we have been engaging special teachers to teach special subjects such as art, French, mathematics, and music. At last we have progressed to the point where special teachers with special training and qualifications are required to teach physical education. This subject is no longer the Cinderella of our curriculum."16 A new philosophy was developing in British Columbia schools which emphasized games, skill development and the idea that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. Physical education was starting to be used for enjoyment.

Some of the gains made in the 1920s were lost in the 1930s when many local boards of education dropped physical education from the school curriculum, on the grounds that physical education was an unnecessary and expensive 'frill.' However, the absence of wholesome physical activity among unemployed youths was also a concern. To this end, "forward-thinking leaders of this field realized that physical education could do much for the situation" and that a "concerted effort was necessary to strengthen and expand worth-while programs which could contribute to enriched living." These ideas led the formation of the Canadian Physical Education Association [CPEA] in 1933.

The goals of the CPEA were:

  1. to stimulate universal, intelligent, and active interest in health and physical education
  2. to acquire and disseminate knowledge concerning the first goal
  3. to promote interest and to strive for the establishment of educative programs under the direction of properly trained teachers
  4. to set the standards of the physical education profession

With organizations such as the CPEA leading the way, cadet corps and military style instruction began to disappear in British Columbia schools. This greatly effected changes in the school curriculum in regards to physical education. Games and extra-curricular athletics became very popular in schools, and community sports thrived like never before. The so-called Green Syllabus was introduced in British Columbia in 1933. The Green Syllabus emphasized the Danish style of gymnastics, which was more rhythmic than the Swedish style. The 1933 Physical Educaion syllabus also promoted games such as baseball, softball, rugby, and basketball in British Columbia schools.17

The years leading up to World War II saw futher changes in the attitude towards physical education in British Columbia. In 1934, the Recreational and Physical Education Branch of the Department of Education was created to focus on physical fitness both inside and outside of school. By 1936, the aim of the Recreational and Physical Education Branch of the Department of Education became focused on "a beautiful all-round development of the individual, physically as well as mentally." It was decided that such a goal could not be attained through competitive sports and games alone. The emphasis then moved from competitive sports and formalized physical exercises to more "enjoyable rhythmic gymnastics, group games, folk and social dances, elementary tumbling, box-vaulting, and other apparatus activities designed to develop strength, flexibility, and muscular co-ordination."18 The Pro-Rec program was an immediate success and it set the foundation for the social and philosophical changes that eventually occurred in the field of physical education in British Columbia schools.19

The start of World War II produced a devastating effect on the physical education programs in British Columbia schools. Since many male physical education instructors left the classroom to fight overseas, a large shortage developed. These positions were filled by less qualified teachers who knew very little about physical education. In addition, the Army had priority to physical education equipment so even school systems where funds had not been cut back were not always able to purchase the required athletic supplies. As a result, the "physical education programs changed in character, with the stress on formal calisthenics, obstacle courses, and endurance activities and other programs requiring no equipment."19 Furthermore, the old system of physical activity and military drill seemed to be making its way back into schools with the outbreak of World War II. Cadet training, which had been virtually non-existent for many years, was revived. In 1941, the province's Superintentent of Education, S. J. Willis stated in his annual report that cadet instruction should become a regular part of the school curriculum and that administrators "were requested to encourage the establishment of corps in their schools."20 By 1941 there were at least 118 corps established in schools with an enrollment in excess of 15,000 students. This was a significant increase from the 15 cadet corps with 912 students enrolled in 1938-1939.21

At the start of the war, many volunteers — males and females — were rejected because they were physically unfit for military service. This provoked a widespread concern about the physical fitness of Canada's youth. These concerns were expressed earlier by the CPEA at its annual convention in Vancouver in 1939. At that time, the CPEA urged federal and provincial governments to establish better programs for recreation and fitness. These factors triggered the introduction of the National Fitness Act of 1943. This act extended the physical education programs in all educational institutions, encouraged sports and other athletics, and prepared teachers in "the principles of physical education and fitness." Overall, the act stimulated British Columbia to improve its physical education and recreation programs for both schools and for the community.

Following World War II, participation in competitive games and team sports became the theme of physical education in British Columbia schools. This theme, when accompanied by the National Physical Fitness Act of 1943, brought about a new physical education curriculum for British Columbia schools, as well as more funding for the extension of physical education programs. The post war curriculum emphasized new objectives which sought to:

  1. To develop fundamental skills of movement.
  2. To develop athletic and game skills.
  3. To develop and maintain physical fitness through vigorous physical exercise.
  4. To develop knowledge and attitudes of game strategies and rules.
  5. To develop social and abilities through group interaction, team work, and learning to accept responsibilities.
  6. To develop emotional stability and control.

This curriculum emphasized new, more modern idea of fitness and participation. These objectives stressed the importance of fitness as well as the skills necessary to develop good 'psycho-motor' abilities which are fundamental for participation in games and sports. Because of the new curriculum, intra and inter school sports became more popular. John Gough, municipal inspector for the Greater Victoria School District, noted in the late 1940s that student participation in school athletics and inter-school competitions in soccer, basketball, swimming, badminton and track and field had increased significantly.

Leading the way in the philosophical changes of physical education was the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation (CAHPER). This association, founded in 1933 by Dr. A. S. Lamb as the CPEA, evolved into the CAHPER with the goal of uniting teachers, administrators, researchers, coaches, students, and other people involved in one of the three areas — health, physical education and recreation — and to promote the benefits of a physically active lifestyle. This association had four main objectives:

  1. To act as a strong national advocate for physical education, health, sport, dance, and recreation on issues pertaining to physically active lifestyles.
  2. To create a network of practitioners and work in partnership with provincial liaison groups and related agencies to achieve mutual goals.
  3. To exercise leadership as a collaborative convenor of a forum of allied organizations and agencies that relate to physically active lifestyles.
  4. To develop quality programs in educational settings from kindergarten to university.
These objectives proved to be very successful. CAHPER's largest success regarding physical education in schools was the promotion of quality daily physical activity within school programs.

With this push towards a more modern physical education in schools, new teacher training programs were developed to improve the level of qualification of teachers regarding physical education. In 1946, the University of British Columbia instituted its first degree program in the area of physical education. Also at this time, teachers-in-training were required to take basic courses in health and physical education. To assist the teachers with little physical education experience, in-service training courses were also offered. These courses included teaching in the areas of folk dancing, swimming, and games. Furthermore, "a carefully selected group of ex-service men was given an intensive course in school health and physical education and in teacher training at the Vancouver Normal School" so that they would be qualified to teach physical education in British Columbia's public schools. With increased teacher training and the advent of a new ideology regarding physical education, the Strathcona Trust, which once had a firm hold on physical education, began to decline.

In conclusion, the drill and physical training of the early 1900s was instrumental in developing the physical education programs of today. The Strathcona Trust is viewed by many as a particularly negative program in terms of physical education in British Columbia. This, however, is a misconception. Not only did the Srathcona Trust promote the importance of physical education in schools, it also provided much-needed funding along with a structure and curriculum. Eventually, the drill and training gave way to a program which emphasized fun, health-centred physical education programs including games, sports, and healthy living.

Notes and references

Written and researched by Christina Graham and Nick Moore, History 349, Malaspina University-College, Spring 2000.