The beauty and the joy of the body in movement

Usha Mukunda

“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.” – Plato

When I was asked to write a piece on the evolving nature of physical education in schools, I wondered how best to share my personal feelings and experiences as a sports person, and also put it into a larger perspective. So where else could I get that whole perspective on education than from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, I thought? And off I went on a journey of exploration to discover how these two civilizations perceived the role of physical training in their educational vision.

The Greeks felt strongly that from a young age, nurturing of the human body, mind, and soul, was really of the essence. This is clearly articulated by both Plato and his illustrious student Aristotle. Education, according to them, must include elements which would develop and enhance each of these attributes of the human being. Implied in this is the inter-relatedness of the education of the body, the mind and the soul. For a civilization which saw the burgeoning of the foremost philosophers, scientists, political thinkers, and athletes, this foundation for a whole education makes complete sense.

For the Romans, education began at home with lessons taught by the father, in some cases by the mother, and monitored by Greek slaves. When children did go to school at age six or seven, the learning was mainly confined to literature, philosophy and rhetoric, with a strong emphasis on politics. The physical body was subjected to harsh punishments but there is not much evidence of a structured programme on care of the body. The attention given to making the body strong and invincible was linked more to prowess on the battlefield.

Closer to present times, the philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, spoke about education of the whole human being. He reiterated the need to bring about a harmony of the mind, the heart and the body. Right education for him was the integration of an attentive mind, a compassionate heart and a healthy body.

It is against this backdrop that I would like to look at the necessity, the process and the effectiveness of a physical education programme in schools. It is also relevant to look at curricula of various boards of education and evaluate not only their plan but also their implementation.

In conversations with some colleagues who, like me, have been deeply immersed in sports from a young age, some insights emerged and it may be interesting and useful to consider these in the form of questions.

What does it mean to relate to one’s body? To know what is right and good for it and to be aware of its potential and possibilities? How can a physical education programme in schools help to bring this about?
One of the ways this can happen in a school programme is to allow children, both girls and boys, from a young age to play in free spaces. These spaces should also have challenging terrain so that they discover for themselves what their body is capable of and also how much it can be stretched. In this process there is an absence of fear and force. As the child gets older and learns more ways to exercise the body and to discover individual propensities in skills, this relationship between the individual and her body gets strengthened. In walking, running, playing games, and sharpening skills, the young person discovers the joy of a body in motion. The school programme must not only give time for physical exercise but also convey the importance of warming up and cooling down by explaining what this does to various parts of the body. Another aspect that often gets neglected is to provide the right equipment and impart the need to use it well. This is actually part and parcel of a physical education programme – to know the tools of the trade and to learn to take care of them and make the right use of them.

I think a school programme which has the clear intent to bring about this bonding between mind and body will be able to come up with intelligent ways to do this. It is vital to be alert to gender bias. Inclusion for all ages, body types and strengths is another vital element of a good physical education programme. The actual details will fall into place when the intent is clear.

Is there a way to reach every child according to her ability and her need? Can we be aware that each body is unique?
Where the physical education programme aims to bring about a celebration of what the body is capable of doing, each individual can discover this for herself and select how best to keep the body well tuned, fit and healthy. At Centre for Learning in Bengaluru, there is a strong physical education programme but it is not a one-size-fits-all. Once the young person discovers the beauty that a finely tuned body can have, he or she can choose to walk, jog, play specific group games, do cross-country running and in some cases weight training as well. This does not mean that physical education happens in isolation. It is a blend of group games and individual fitness plans that go into it. Along with this is the learning about food and nutrition. So an academic session on anatomy, food, digestion and health can and must be integrated with what happens on the field.

Can there be a sense of joy and discovery in PE in the way in which we speak of it for intellectual learning?
Very much. There is a learning about oneself on the physical plane. How the body works, what makes it unwell and to learn what it is capable of. For example, while trekking or climbing a mountain, young people discover how much the body can take on, as long as the mind does not block it. From this awareness, an interest does grow to take up sports coaching or even sports medicine. Similarly, they may discover how they behave in the hurly-burly of a game and that may induce an interest to take up sports psychology and counselling. Sports management is a growing discipline too. Many students take up a career as a physical instructor and bring a fresh nuance to this domain.

Can one introduce philosophy, ethics and empathy through a physical education programme? What is sportsmanship and fair play? Does physical strength lead to violence?
This is where the Greeks come in! When Plato and Aristotle spoke of the body being attuned to the mind and soul, what they had in mind was a holistic awareness of one’s physical strength and stamina, along with the sensitivity to another who might be weaker but not lesser. There is cooperation, compassion and a balanced outlook in all that is done.

Physical exercise can be invigorating but can also erupt in heated moments. The adrenaline that is produced while playing at high tension can produce high performance, but it can also bring about ugly scenes during play. One of the things that a school programme or a PE curriculum can do is to talk about the dangers of losing control and invite young people to share actual moments when they ‘lose it’! One young boy in the school where I coached table tennis was known for his flashes of ill temper during the game. Yet it was the same boy who could say of his opponent to whom he lost, “N is a real gentleman. He is so sporting at all times.”! Unsaid was the sentence, “I wish…..”.

Physical strength is an asset but it must be used gently! There are stories that can be read, examples given from real life and I see the integration with the library happening very seamlessly. There are biographies of great sportspeople who have shared their struggles and eventual learning which can inspire children in more than one way.

Is spectator sport taking over from actual playing? Is there a lopsided culture growing in this regard?
In recent times we have seen that almost every sport has modified rules or playing conventions to make it more spectator-worthy. In the game that I played from the age of 12, each game went up to 21 points and there was a feeling that one could try strokes, gauge the opponent’s playing style and even come up with fresh strategies during each game. The audience too followed each rally closely, with appreciation and understanding. Now the game has been whittled down to 11 points. A few fancy services and two or three strokes and the game is done. This is the ‘fast food’ route. In other sports too these changes to ‘please’ the demanding spectator have come in. One-day cricket, 20 overs – what next? One of my colleagues felt that more and more young people prefer to watch rather than play. Not only that, they might well feel they have the right to be rude and demeaning to players. Therefore a strong physical education programme in every school is a necessity to ‘grow’ young bodies in a healthy way. In my neighbourhood, there are many schools with hardly or no open space to play or exercise. The nearest playground is commissioned only on the annual Sports Day and there is a lot of sound and fury signifying little physical growth and learning.

Just as future careers and professions emerge as passions and possibilities for students as they go through their educational programme, can the physical education programme also provide such openings?
Both NCERT and CBSE have enunciated a physical education programme to be taught as a subject. The NCERT stays within conventionally known borders but the CBSE document has some interesting topics such as physical education and sports for special needs children and youth, along with understanding the psychology of competition, stress and aggression in sports. It also includes a separate section on Women and Sports as well as a fitness test for senior citizens!

The physical education curriculum for the ICSE Board is somewhat limited. There is a chapter on sportsmanship which has no mention of behaviour while playing a sport. There is no component on nutrition or on the history of games. Both these themes could be integrated into a classroom discussion.

The Cambridge-based IGCSE Board has a much more thoughtful and comprehensive curriculum as can be seen in their introduction to the course. “Study in PE should be broad, coherent and practical. It should encourage students to be inspired, motivated and challenged by the subject. It should enable them to make informed decisions about future learning opportunities and career pathways. It should enable the student to understand the benefit to health, fitness and well-being.”

It seems clear that where there is a well-thought out rationale and intent for a physical education programme in schools or for a curriculum for a PE course to be studied, there, the road map both for the physical instructor and for the teachers becomes simpler to follow. Seeing the delight and joy that children display in the sheer movement of their bodies, it behoves all of us who look at education as child-centred, to ensure a vigorous and enjoyable physical education programme for children in our educational vision.

“When the mind, the heart and the body are in complete harmony, then the flowering of the human being comes naturally. This is our job as educators and our responsibility.” – J. Krishnamurti

I would like to acknowledge the valuable discussions I had with V. Viswanathan, a former state cycling champion, and Sharad Jain, a sports enthusiast and physical instructor at Shibumi school, Bengaluru.

The author has played for Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, as well as for India, starting at the age of 12 and going on till the age of 40! After that she has been happily engaged in conveying the physical grace and joy of the game to innumerable students. Subsequently she has been passionately involved with libraries for children. She can be reached at

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