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Physical Training Of Young Children

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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 cannot 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 movementsóthe 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 resultsówant 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 in-dispensable 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 emotions, 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 games, 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 games; the exercises called sports are in general simply games 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.

Games 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 practised, 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 the last 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.

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