Letter XXII. February 10, 1819

My dear Greaves,

If, according to correct principles of education, all the faculties of Man are to be developed, and all his slumbering energies called into play, the early attention of mothers must be directed to a subject which is generally considered to require neither much thought nor experience, and therefore as generally neglected. I mean the physical education of children. Who has not a few general sentences at hand, which he will be ready to quote, but perhaps not to practise, on the management of children? I am aware that much has been done away with that used to exercise the very worst influence on children. I am aware that the general management of them has become much more rational, and that their tasks and amusements have been much improved by a judicious attention to their wants and their faculties. But much still remains to be done; and we shall deserve little credit for a real wish to improve, if we suffer ourselves to rest satisfied with the idea, that all is not so bad as it might be, or as it may have been.

The revival of gymnastics is, in my opinion, the most important step that has been done in that direction. The great merit of the gymnastic art is not the facility with which certain exercises are performed, or the qualification which they may give for certain exertions that require much energy and dexterity; though an attainment of that sort is by no means to be despised. But the greatest advantage resulting from a practice of those exercises is the natural progress which is observed in the arrangement of them, beginning with those which, while they are easy in themselves, yet lead as a preparatory practice to others which are more complicated and more difficult. There is not, perhaps, any art in which it may be so clearly shown that energies which appeared to be wanting are to be produced, as it were, or at least are to be developed by no other means than practice alone. This might afford a most useful hint to all those who are engaged in teaching any objects of instruction, and who meet with difficulties in bringing their pupils to that proficiency which they had expected. Let them recommence on a new plan in which the exercises shall be differently arranged, and the subjects brought forward in a manner that will admit of the natural progress from the easier to the more difficult. When talent is wanting altogether, I know that it cannot be imparted by any system of education. But I have been taught by experience to consider the cases in which talents of any kind are absolutely wanting, but very few. And in most cases, I have had the satisfaction to find that a faculty which had been quite given over, instead of being developed, had been obstructed rather in its agency by a variety of exercises which tended to perplex or to deter from further exertion.

And here I would attend to a prejudice, which is common enough concerning the use of gymnastics: it is frequently said that they may be very good for those who are strong enough: but that those who are suffering from weakness of constitution would be altogether unequal to, and even endangered by, a practice of gymnastics.

Now I will venture to say that this rests merely upon a misunderstanding of the first principles of gymnastics: the exercises not only vary in proportion to the strength of individuals; but exercises may be, and have been devised, for those also who were decidedly suffering. And I have consulted the authority of the first physicians, who declared that in cases which had come under their personal observation, individuals affected with pulmonary complaints, if these had not already proceeded too far, had been materially relieved and benefitted by a constant practice of the few and simple exercises, which the system in such cases proposes.

And for this very reason, that exercises may be devised for every age, and for every degree of bodily strength, however reduced, I consider it to be essential that mothers should make themselves acquainted with the principles of gymnastics, in order that, among the elementary and preparatory exercises, they may be able to select those which, according to circumstances, will be most likely to suit and benefit their children.

I do not mean to say that mothers should strictly adhere to those exercises only which they may find pointed out in a work on gymnastics; they may, of course, vary them as they find desirable or advisable; but I would recommend a mother much rather to consult one who has some experience in the management of gymnastics (with children), before she decides upon altering the course proposed, or adopting other exercises of which she is unable to calculate the exact degree of strength which they may require, or the benefit that her children may derive from them.

If the physical advantage of gymnastics is great and uncontrovertible, I would contend that the moral advantage resulting from them is as valuable. I would again appeal to your own observation. You have seen a number of schools in Germany and Switzerland of which gymnastics formed a leading feature; and I recollect that in our conversations on the subject, you made the remark which exactly agrees with my own experience, that gymnastics, well conducted, essentially contribute to render children not only cheerful and healthy, which, for moral education, are two all-important points, but also to promote among them a certain spirit of union and a brotherly feeling, which is most gratifying to the observer: habits of industry, openness and frankness of character, personal courage, and a manly conduct in suffering pain, are also among the natural and constant consequences of an early and a continued practice of exercises on the gymnastic system. (PSW 26, p.100-103)