School needs sport

By Ludwig Digomann, July 2013

School – a place of physical inactivity, brain work, intellectualism and source of postural problems – needs physical education. Ludwig Digomann, upper school teacher at the Kräherwald Free Waldorf School, explains the specific nature of physical education in Waldorf schools.

© Charlotte Fischer

The drawbacks of physical inactivity were recognised as long ago as the second half of the nineteenth century by school officials in Prussia who ordered that “gymnastics” should be included in the range of mandatory subjects. But the goals and content of this subject changed fundamentally over the course of time. Thus in Wilhelmine Germany at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century the drilling and marching exercises by the gymnastics teachers instilled obedience and discipline in the Kaiser’s subjects. Towards the end of this era, with its Prussian military traits, the attempt was made to intensify the combination of sport and military education and to transform school sports into military fitness training – something which did not, however, prevent the German defeat in the First World War. A short time later, the aim of the gymnastics exercises was to create the healthy, strong German warrior and elegantly circumvent the restrictions of the Versailles treaty. “Physical exercise” was to make “the German race” invincible, as the founding meeting of the “German Reich Committee” for Physical Exercise formulated it in 1917.

In the 1960s, performance sport became the measure of all things: “higher, further, faster” and “the earlier, the better”. That also applied to sport in schools. Happily the insight gained ground that the laws which govern the development of young people must not be overlooked. The sporting exercises and sequences of movement should also include the health, joint activity and joy in movement of the pupils and train their will. Using the argument that the health of young people had to be maintained, a daily physical education lesson was agreed in 1956 as the long-term aim of general education schools after a conference of the German Sports Association and the education ministers of the federal states. This rough historical sketch shows that sport in school can be co-opted for a great variety of aims which may be diametrically opposed such as “military fitness training” and “international understanding”, promoting health and promoting top performance.

Physical education in Waldorf schools

The first Waldorf school, which was founded in Stuttgart in 1919, never did see sport in schools as compensation for the absence of general conscription, as the war ministry in the Weimar Republic did. The Waldorf schools wanted to counter a one-sided intellectual development. Spirit, soul and body were to be developed in harmony. Physical education was thus seen as an element in a holistic education which to the present day has the aim of making an essential contribution to the physical, spiritual, and emotional development of the pupils. When they do sports in school, pupils should have an experience of motion, their bodies, space and success to give them an interest in movement, games and sport beyond school and support aptitudes and talents. This goal takes account of the growing lack of exercise.

Aspects such as the willingness to make an effort, self-confidence, self-discipline and social action with regard to partners and fellow pupils are positively influenced through regular sport. Here physical education promotes skills which can also be developed in other classes but which sport lessons promote with particular intensiveness. Thus the ability to communicate is essential for team games, as, indeed, is the ability to work in a team and the capacity to cope with frustration when we do not win. Self-esteem is strengthened when something suddenly works successfully after long and hard practice, for example in gymnastics or swimming. These goals of sport in school are formulated in very similar ways in the latest curricula for secondary schools in Baden ­Württemberg. But differences remain.

Sport is not the same as Waldorf sport

Alongside many external distinguishing characteristics, there is another crucial inner aspect – namely the development of the child! His or her developmental phases are the basis and measure of sport in Waldorf schools. The focus is neither on the glittering world of top-class sport nor on the requirements of mass sport but primarily on the developmental steps of the child or adolescent.

First and second class pupils do not do sport but are swept up into a world of fairy tales and magic through playful activity and are introduced to chasing, tumbling and reaction games. Actual gym does not start until class 3; at that stage the gym teacher endeavours to let the pupils be immersed in a world of the imagination so that they become familiar with the gym apparatus in a lively and joyful way and learn to manage it through training their skills.

From joint tumbling games the pupils are guided towards exercises which increasingly make use of their nascent feeling of self and work towards courage, strength of purpose and steadfastness. The focus in middle school is the “Agon”, the contest. This refers not just to the contest with others but also the struggle with oneself, that is, with growing heaviness and the increasingly conscious experience of the mechanics of bones and tendons.

The task of the sports teacher in upper school is more and more to remove himself or herself from the exercises, let pupils practice with greater independence and also hand over to them support and safety roles. Alongside there can often be the preparation for successfully taking the school leaving exam in the subject of sport. It is exceptionally important that physical education lessons are integrated into the range of subjects together with eurythmy as movement subjects so that an artistic subject creates a balance for sport. Such a balance is important for the physical and mental wellbeing of the children and young people. Steiner puts it in the following words in the thirteenth lecture of The Study of Man “[...] the more we alternate gym and eurythmy the more we create harmony between the need for sleep and waking; the more we preserve […] the life […] of the child from the side of the will.”

One fact which surprises outsiders is that pupils are taught coeducationally throughout: from class 1 to the sports exams they remain together as a class in physical education lessons. So they are also together just at the time when the boys display excessive drive and the girls a tendency for a certain movemental lethargy. They are thus able to influence one another beneficially. One conspicuous difference to physical education lessons in mainstream schools is also the fact that the classes from grade 3 are generally taught by a female and a male physical education teacher in “team teaching”. Thus the large classes remain together in the gym hall but the pupils can be intensively taught in groups. The aim of sport in Waldorf schools is to follow an arc from group games to individualised sports lessons. If we succeed in communicating joy in achievement, assurance of movement, strength of will and an awareness of fair dealing in age-appropriate steps, we have achieved our goal.