Guest Post: A Brief History of German Gymnastics in US Public Schools and its Relevance for PE Teachers Today


As several of the United States’ largest public school districts plan to continue online learning this fall, many physical education teachers will return to the Instagram Live workouts and virtual check-ins used to keep students active during the first months of the pandemic. The adaptability and resourcefulness they have exhibited resembles that of the subject’s first instructors. Beyond mindset, the gymnastics exercises taught in PE by German-American instructors during the late nineteenth century may serve as an example of how to conduct remote or socially distanced classes next year.

Today gymnastics likely brings to mind images of choreographed floor routines, brightly colored outfits, and Olympic medals. But in the 1880s, the word, much like ‘physical culture,’ was an umbrella term that could variably refer to bodyweight lunges, exercises with dumbbells and Indian Clubs, or movements on parallel and horizontal bars. Figures dating back to Aristotle described gymnastics as part of a complete education that trained the body alongside the mind. Prussian schoolteacher Fredrick Ludwig Jahn was one of several nineteenth century European educators who adhered to this belief. In 1810, he began teaching students a variety of jumps, folk games, and bodyweight exercises on bars. Jahn methods came to be known as Turnen – literally meaning to turn, a German replacement for the Greek ‘gymnastike.’ Jahn believed Turnen would help develop a strong and patriotic citizenry that could avenge Prussia’s military defeat to Napoleonic France. It gained popularity among children and adults alike. The latter, known as Turners, established societies called Turnverein to exercise and discuss political issues. Several Turners attempted to introduce Turnen to a Massachusetts private school in the 1820s, but the experiment only lasted several years. Their second attempt proved much more successful. Following the failed 1848 revolution in Germany, several thousand Turners migrated to the United States, establishing over 150 Turnverein across the country by the end of the next decade. The organization began advocating for gymnastics in schools in 1880, when their President HM Starkloff urged his fellow Turners to ‘invest our efforts in turning gymnastics from a German into an American concept.’


His call to action came as school attendance in the United States tripled from five million in 1865 to fifteen million by 1900. Social reformers believed public schools would increase literacy rates, teach students a common set of good morals, and foster national unity in the wake of the Civil War. Unfortunately, low budgets and time constraints led curriculum to prioritize ‘reading, riting and rithmetic’ at the expense of students’ physical recreation. Contemporary accounts describe classrooms as overcrowded and poorly ventilated spaces where students were confined to work at desks for hours on end. The sedentary school day sparked fears that the next generation of American children would be weaker than their predecessors. Turners were among several groups to present their system of training as a solution.

The modified form of Turnenused in public schools was simply called German gymnastics. Lessons were divided by exercise methodology. They began with running, or marching in place, followed by ‘free gymnastics’ that combined bodyweight exercises easily recognizable to the casual gym-goer today, including squats and abdominal twists, with movements like arm circles and leg raises to address flexibility and balance. Next came light gymnastics – exercises using handheld equipment such as dumbbells and Indian clubs. Finally, if available, students completed exercises on rings or parallel and horizontal bars.

American educators were receptive to German gymnastics for a number of reasons. It had a proven track record in German schools, worked the entire body, and used a ‘scientific’ (read organized) progression of exercises to target students’ physical imbalances. Furthermore, Turners were more concerned with helping the proverbial ‘last pick in an era when early collegiate coaches like Walter Camp were praising the benefits of fierce competition. Instructors modified exercises to ensure all students could participate in lessons because they aimed to improve the health of society as a whole. Finally, Turners adapted to the circumstances presented to them – evident when examining the career of Carl Betz.


The son of Bavarian immigrants, Betz attended the Turner’s teacher training school in Milwaukee and taught in Turnvereins for a decade before beginning his campaign to introduce gymnastics to Kansas City public schools. His efforts resembled the approach of countless other Turners across the country. In May of 1885, Betz attended a meeting of the Kansas City Teachers’ Institute to demonstrate exercises with a group of children. Attendees recognized the value his teachings could bring to students and directed him to the schoolboard, whose members had a similar reaction and appointed Betz the district’s Superintendent of Physical Culture in December of 1885.

The Turner’s teaching methods demonstrate the adaptability and resourcefulness I mentioned at the beginning of this article. A ‘complete’ German gymnastics lesson included exercises on parallel and horizontal bars, but the district could not afford to purchase them, let alone finance a gymnasium. Instead Betz designed curriculum suitable for the classroom or the school yard that required minimal equipment. His second challenge was providing daily instruction to thousands of children across the city. Budget constraints again made it unfeasible to hire additional instructors, so Betz utilized a top down approach, meeting with teachers twice per month to pass on lesson plans. A student representative from each classroom received weekly instruction from Betz as well. Together, the teacher and student led their class through exercises for at least 10 minutes daily, with Betz rotating through schools to periodically supervise instruction.

While the lesson length and conditions were not ideal, the system enabled any school district to introduce PE with just one additional hire and provided plans for when additional resources became available. The Turner’s training school helped address the country’s shortage of qualified teachers, graduating 148 instructors by 1889 who introduced German gymnastics in public schools from San Francisco to New York. Sports and games gradually overtook gymnastics as American’s favored method of PE, but the Turners’ legacy can still be seen in the rings and ropes that hang from the rafters of school gymnasiums today.

I am not suggesting the adaptability and resourcefulness needed to teach PE during the pandemic can be directly compared to classroom lessons in 1885. Yet today’s teachers still need these qualities because they continue to face the time and funding constraints of their nineteenth century predecessors. According to a 2016 report by SHAPE, less than one-third of states have minimum time requirements for PE and the median yearly PE budget per school is just $764. If teachers are provided the resources they need to effectively conduct physical education remotely, lessons resembling the bodyweight exercises of German gymnastics will be far easier and safer to teach over Zoom than the team sports many are accustomed to. The same can be said in regard to maintaining social distancing during instruction when schools do reopen. Some districts may even need to utilize Betz’s method of teacher-led classroom lessons to reduce student contact. It is far easier for students to be sedentary at home today than it was for nineteenth century school children. Turnerslobbied for PE to be given equal standing with other school subjects, it seems clear now more than ever that this goal must be realized.

Author Bio:

7Nick Capicotto recently graduated with a Dual MA/MSc in International History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He is interested in the transatlantic connections between Physical Culture in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nick is a former certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise and a Maryland state record holding powerlifter in the USAPL.

To learn more about the early history of PE in the United States, watch his video presentation to the International Conference on Sport and Society here


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