Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/Physical Training of Young Children


IT would be a great mistake to apply, in the physical training of children, the same principles as those by which gymnastics for adults is adapted. And as we recognize different grades in the intellectual teaching of children, corresponding with their different ages, so the exercises prescribed for them should vary, to correspond with the different degrees of their bodily development. The child's gymnastics should be quite distinct from that which is considered best suited to mature age. It should not look to utility, but should serve an exclusively hygienic end. The first object should be to give good carriage, to aid the pupils in reaching a full maximum of growth, and see that they are developed regularly, without deformity and without blemishes. All these conditions are within the domain of hygiene. A second feature of the exercise adapted to children regards the cerebral conditions which result from their being at school. They require diversion from the mental work that is put upon them, and such diversion can be obtained only by giving them the pleasure of recreation.

Hence, we have the two essential features that should be secured in infant gymnastics—the hygienic and the recreative.

The usual school gymnastics lacks much of being irreproachable from the hygienic point of view. Some of the methods seem to have been chosen rather because they were convenient of application than on account of any hygienic value. They are not adapted so much to the requirements of the child as to the accommodations of the school premises. Methods have been sought by which they could be applied in narrow spaces, and considerable muscular effort called out in a very short time. It may be convenient to collect a class of children once or twice a week and make them perform vigorous movements, but it is hardly what their hygiene demands. To measure out approximately the amount of exercise that ought to be taken in a week and administer it all at once is no more valid than it would be to give food for several days at a single meal. The child's exercise should be as carefully allotted to him as his food, and excessive fatigue as sedulously avoided as indigestion. A system of giving gymnastic exercises at too long intervals involves the dilemma that too great exertion may be called out at each lesson, or, if the labor is moderated, too little will be done. The child does not want intense effort at rare intervals, but moderate exercises frequently repeated.

The fact that intense muscular effort interferes with the development of the growing infant in height is perhaps less well known to hygienists and physicians than to veterinary surgeons and trainers. It has long been observed that young horses which are put to work too early never become as large as their fellow-colts which are allowed to reach their full growth in the pasture. Gymnastic apparatus, with the efforts which they necessitate, would have on the child the same dwarfing influence as harnessing to the wagon or the plow upon the colt. The infant prodigies of the circus sufficiently exemplify this fact. With all the skill they display, they seldom exhibit well-grown, evenly developed forms, but are usually in some way distorted; and persons who have begun hard work on farms or as laborers too early in life are generally stunted. Besides being unevenly distributed in time, these exercises are badly localized as to the different parts of the body. All exercises with fixed apparatus—the trapeze, the stationary bar, rings, parallel bars, slack rope, etc.—throw the work wholly upon the upper part of the body, leaving the muscles of the pelvis and lower limbs comparatively inactive. This is not so much matter with city men, who have to walk a great deal; but is a very important consideration with children at school, who spend most of their time sitting on benches.

In children muscular effort should be generalized, so as to make as great a number of muscles as possible participate in it, or at least to distribute it judiciously among the stronger muscles. When each group of muscles shares in the exercise according to its strength, the labor is less fatiguing, and we are able to obtain the general benefit of exercise—which is the communication of the highest activity of the circulation and respiration, without incurring the harmful results which are forms of fatigue. This benefit is more conveniently obtained through exercise of the legs than of the arms, because they are stronger and can bear more work without fatigue. In such exercises, of which running is the type, not only the legs but the pelvis, the vertebral column, the shoulders, and the arms, all participate. Exercises in which the work is localized, however much they may contribute to the development of the active part in the adult, do not have that effect in children, the volume of whose muscles is never increased by them. They are consequently useless, while they promote fatigue. They are liable to the further objection that they tend to produce deformities in young children subjected to them, whose plastic frames at their tender age yield very readily to any stress which is put upon them, and acquire a permanent set if it is repeated too often. Partisans of gymnastics plead, in answer to this objection, that their system may be and is used to correct bodily deformities; but the plea really strengthens the argument against the system, for the same structure that yields to a corrective application of gymnastic exercise will yield as readily to a distorting one. It is only when the frame has become mature and firmly set that such exercises can be applied without danger and to advantage; and that they are then useful when rightly applied can not be gainsaid.

These objections do not lie against floor exercises, or light gymnastics, which are not performed with fixed apparatus. In these, the child bends, stretches, and shifts his arms, legs, head, and body in various directions, at the command of the teacher, in measured rhythm. These motions are hygienically irreproachable. They do not exact any very intense muscular effort, or vicious attitude of the body, or abnormal use of the limbs. But even when performed in concert they are not recreations, and this is an extremely important matter with pupils whose brains are working to excess. They become exceedingly monotonous, and the child begins to perform them reluctantly, or learns to partly evade them. Although he can hardly escape going through the visible motion, he can easily avoid the muscular effort without which it is ineffective. The evasion may, it is true, be corrected by strict vigilance on the part of the teacher; but what becomes then of the distraction, of the mental relaxation which the pupil ought to find in his physical training? To compel one to the performance of the motions is no way to make him love his exercise. In this way the pupil finds in them, not a recreation, but a lesson additional to the others—a new burden. Now, recreation is not only a moral want of the child, but it is an important physical need, in so far as it furnishes a remedy for the nervous weakness and irritability that are induced by constant constraint, and helps to prevent disturbance of the equilibrium of the vital functions. Both of the gymnastic systems of physical education, therefore, lack the important essentials of being hygienic and recreative.

The prime fault of both these kinds of gymnastic exercise is that they are artificial. They were introduced for the praise-worthy purpose of supplying the want of natural exercise where that could not be obtained; but they have gone beyond this, and the notion has arisen that a child can not take proper exercise without going through an apprenticeship and being subjected to a method: the more complicated the method, and the more difficult the apprenticeship, the better the results that are anticipated. The elaborate gymnastics, which many regard as a kind of perfection of natural exercise, is, from the hygienic point of view, nothing but a make-shift when we can get no better means, but a poor substitute for the spontaneous gymnastics to which every child is naturally inclined. This instinctive exercise would amply suffice for the development of the body if the instinct was listened to every time it speaks, but social and scholar conditions do not permit this. The instinctive desire, repressed too often, becomes weakened, and finally disappears. The body accommodates itself to a sedentary life, and the insufficiency of exercise finally induces muscular indolence and an inert habit. The teacher of gymnastics would not be needed if the pupil had the privilege every day, for a sufficient time, of a large space, and liberty to amuse himself in it.

Why, then, erect halls and apparatus if we can have the privilege of a spacious sward or a garden with broad walks? While gymnastic apparatus may be useful where there is not room to provide other means, what is to be said of heads of families having ample spaces in the country, with all desired conditions for natural gymnastics, who go to the trouble of constructing gymnasiums for their children? The tendency to look for the best misses its mark nowhere more sadly than in the physical education of the child, when it prefers complicated processes to natural methods, and neglects the best hygienic means as too simple or insufficient. In the belief that the child can not take proper exercise without apparatus, when no apparatus is at hand no exercise is taken. He must have a special master for the exercise, and his taking it is made to depend on the master—to such an extent, that no one in the family thinks of the child's doing anything outside of the regulation lessons.

Instinctive gymnastics is, from the hygienic point of view, the best adapted to the regular development of the child. It is not liable to any of the objections we have brought against gymnastics with apparatus. It can not deform the body, for it is made up of spontaneous movements, and conformed to the natural office of each limb. It does not localize the work in a particular region of the body, for all the limbs are instinctively invited to take their quota of exercise; and it does not seduce the child into efforts touching upon the limits of his strength. Instinct also invites him to the kind of work which is best adapted to his particular aptitudes for resisting fatigue. He has a natural disposition to perform light but frequently recurring acts, quick motions, which put him out of breath, while exercises with apparatus rather exact slow and intense efforts that bring on local fatigue. Now, all observers have noticed the wonderful facility with which a child recovers his breath, and his impatience of local fatigue. Finally, natural exercise, being the satisfaction of a want, is by that very fact a pleasure; and joy shines in the face of the child who is playing freely.

The partisans of artificial gymnastics object to this method that it does not give in mature age the great muscular force, the capacity to bear fatigue, and the refined dexterity of movements—the various athletic and acrobatic qualities, in short, that should result from a complete physical education; and they assume that these superior qualities of the picked man, to be given the fullest vigor, should be cultivated from a tender age. They fall into the mistake, which is too often made in physical education, of not distinguishing between methods of development and perfecting processes. The physical education of the child, up to his fifteenth year, should have for its sole object to favor the growth of the body in all directions, particularly in height and weight; the perfecting of the structure of the organs, and the training of them by methodical exercise to a more complete performance, should come later on. The fourteenth year will be early enough to begin more energetic motions for hardening the flesh and developing the muscles. Till that age, physical education should especially aim to remove from the child all influences that may be in the way of the free expansion and growth of the body. Among these harmful influences are two of opposite character that produce nearly identical results—want of exercise, which makes the child emaciated, and excess of work, which stunts him.

This important distinction between developing and perfecting hygiene is well understood and observed by horse-trainers. They give colts nourishing food, free air, and room to gambol; and do not begin training them for work till they have acquired bodily growth and substance.

If natural gymnastics is enough for the animal, we may conclude from analogy that it would be amply sufficient for the child, if he had the conditions of space and time that are indispensable to the satisfaction of the instinct that impels him to exercise. When, then, the social conditions to which the child is subjected do not permit him to indulge in instinctive exercise, gymnastic methods as like as possible to those which instinct suggests should be sought for him.

The form of exercise that comes nearest to natural exercise is playing. It is nothing else than a more or less methodical regulation of the instinctive motions, such as every living being is prone to execute spontaneously when he feels the stress of the want of exercise. It may be called a natural exercise, for we see the young of every species of animals playing with one another, and may even observe their parents inciting them to play. The teaching of plays, which we find in all countries and ages, originates, we may suppose, in this tendency of the living being to educate his progeny physically by exciting him to enjoy himself in motion. Play, in the progress of civilization, has taken various forms, and has been subjected to methods that tend more and more to introduce into it an artificial element. Hence, sport has been developed from plays; the exercises called sports are in general simply plays that have taken a more methodical form, permitting a greater display of muscular force, exacting more complicated motions and a longer apprenticeship. It is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between sport and play. Fencing, equitation, and canoeing are varieties of sport. Cricket is as much a play for children as an exercise of sport; in short, in the hygienic view, sports are half-way between gymnastics and play, and are therefore more suitable to youth than to children.

Plays give the form of gymnastics most congenial to the conditions of social life, for they are at the same time hygienic and recreative, and are as well adapted to the physical requirements of the child as to his moral needs. Physically regarded, they demand neither very intense efforts nor localized muscular contractions. Even the most complicated of them call out nothing more than combinations of simple movements and natural attitudes; while gymnastics necessitates abnormal combinations in the association of the muscles, with movements which the child, having never practiced, has to learn laboriously. Play presents no difficulties comparable to those offered by gymnastics. If the child has not yet become adept in the game, he will play badly and lose his part; but he will play, and will at least gain the physical advantages of exercise. But when he is dealing with the abnormal motions or "turns" of gymnastics, if he has not yet learned the way of executing them, or acquired the knack, which it often takes a long time to gain, he only makes a pretense of exercising, and his effort is limited to a fruitless tentative, without any effective activity.

Besides the support of reason and observation, the method of exercise by playing has the sanction of acquired facts. It was the only children's gymnastics at the beginning of this century, and even now some nations have no other settled method of physical exercise. The English have never taken to gymnastics with apparatus; and the Belgians, after having tried it, are abandoning it and returning to play. No one can question the excellence of the results of the English method; the vigor and endurance of English youth are universally recognized, and their school-games constitute their whole gymnastics.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

The subject of mental overwork was discussed in the Anthropological Society some time ago, in the light of the recorded observations of school-teachers. Weariness of mind, it was said, is marked by irritability, as manifested in sleeplessness and in nervous laughter; and by fatigue, exhibiting itself in sleepiness and incapacity for task-work. Headache suggests overstrain in study, defective ventilation, or, perhaps, a too sparing diet. Sometimes the perception of particular colors is obliterated for a time, and this may suggest an explanation of some forms of color-blindness. In some cases a form of somnambulism was originated.