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What are the origins of movement education?

This is an excerpt from Teaching Movement Education by Karen Abels & Jennifer M. Bridges.

History and Philosophy of Movement Education

When did movement education originate? Why was it popular in the 1960s, 1970s, and even into the 1980s? Who should know the movement education framework (MEF)? Why did its popularity fade, and where are we today? Who were the contributors to the beginnings of movement education? Because we offer only a brief historical overview of movement education, we mention only some key people connected with the formulation of this approach.

A critical event in the history of physical education was the implementation of national content standards. In addition to the development of movement education as a delivery method for physical education content, a critical historical event for physical education was the implementation of national content standards. These standards can be linked directly to movement education. The success of any movement education program is rooted in the ability of those who teach it to embody the essence of the movement education philosophy. How a teacher delivers a program based on a movement education philosophy is vital to students' learning. This issue is addressed at the end of this chapter.

Creators of a New Idea: Movement Education in the 1800s to Early 1900s

The early pioneers of movement education were influenced by the idea of the body being an expression of movement. Three of the most historically influential individuals were Francois Delsarte, Liselott Diem, and Rudolf von Laban.


One of the first people to articulate ideas of movement was Francois Delsarte, a Frenchman who lived in the 19th century. This era was influenced by Romanticism, which emphasized the notion of expression of thought and emotion. Delsarte developed what he termed applied aesthetics (Brown & Sommer, 1969) and focused his work in the arts, where he contributed critical ideas of connections among the mind, body, and spirit. He also saw movement as a union of time, space, and motion. Delsarte suggested that the combination of movements toward and away from the center of the body was critical to all other movements.

Delsarte believed that expressive movement should relate to the emotion that inspired that movement. In addition, he introduced the idea of parallelism in movement—the simultaneous motion of two body parts in the same direction and in succession. His nine laws of motion referred to altitude, force, motion, sequence, direction, form, velocity, reaction, and extension. These ideas gave rise to much of what was to come in the field of movement education.

Liselott Diem

In the mid- to late 1930s, Professor Liselott Diem and her husband, Carl, founded an internationally known college in Germany, Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln, to train teachers in sport and physical education. The college taught a “natural approach to teaching children to move effectively in all kinds of situations” (Brown and Sommer, 1969,
p. 62 ). Children were encouragedto explore movement freely in their own way and according to their unique stages of development. The teacher's role was to provide an environment that supported and fostered this focus. The teacher would use simple equipment such as balls, wands, ropes, boxes, and benches to allow children to develop a wide variety of movement responses individually, with partners, or within small groups.

Diem's approach centered on learning to build movement skills and balance. Teachers were encouraged to challenge children by asking questions such as “Who can do this?” and “How can this be done differently?” They would then guide the children toward improving their quality of movement. Diem's focus for older children was more on developing an awareness and analysis of muscular force as well as how to move in time and space.

Rudolf von Laban

Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958) is considered by most as the true pioneer of movement education. A critical contribution was his theory of movement, focusing specifically on the concept of effort. Laban believed that the body was an instrument of expression and made a distinction between this expressive movement and movements that serve a purpose in everyday life (functional movement). Expressive movement communicates ideas in dance or other forms of artistic expression. Functional movement has a purpose in addition to helping with the tasks of everyday life, such as sports and games. The four factors of movement that Laban identified (weight, space, time, and flow) became the bedrock of what became known as movement education.

Development of a Curricular Approach: 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s

Whereas Laban and his colleagues were concerned with the inner attitude of the mover and the function of each movement (Stanley, 1977), those who came after them provided a way of regarding movement and applying this perspective to the teaching of physical education. The intent of those working at this time was to provide a framework that teachers could use to apply these movement concepts broadly in the following three learning domains:

  • Cognitive
  • Psychomotor
  • Affective

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a growth in the field of movement education. Gilliom (1970), Kirchner (1977), Logsdon and colleagues (1977, 1984), Maulden and Layson (1965), Maulden and Redfern (1969), Russell (1975), Stanley (1977), and many others brought movement education to the forefront of elementary physical education.

Movement Concepts

Stanley (1977) and Logsdon and colleagues (1984) identified the four major movement concepts as body (representing the instrument of the action), space (where the body is moving), effort (the quality with which the movement is executed), and relationships (the connections that occur as the body moves—with objects, people, and the environment). Logsdon and colleagues (1984) suggested that how much children gain from their physical education learning experience is related to how well the teacher is able to understand, interpret, and implement the movement content. They suggested that the teacher's goal should be to develop enough knowledge about movement to help learners become skilled in executing all aspects of the movement content.

Fitness Overshadows Movement Education

The fitness boom of the 1970s resulted in a base of research that contributed a solid scientific basis to the study of movement. Movement education was not getting this kind of support and therefore was not met with the same level of enthusiasm in this era. As other curriculum models were introduced that were easier to understand and appealed to the fitness and activity focus of the time, movement education faded from popularity.

Movement Education: At the Heart of Physical Education

The MEF is clearly not a new idea. As ideas developed, the framework for movement education became more and more complex. Professionals began to disagree about the use or exact meaning of terms. As a result, the concepts of human movement and early presentations of the MEF sometimes became intimidating and difficult to use in practical settings. This may have been one of the reasons movement education lost momentum and was by and large replaced by other curricular frameworks over the years. Critics might say that movement education, which was popular in the 1960s, 1970s, and even into the 1980s, is now passé. One of our objectives is to revive this most basic approach to teaching physical education because we believe that it provides not only the basic framework for physical education, but also the basics all educators—both physical education and classroom teachers—are searching for to provide the foundation for teaching physical education. The framework used in this book is a distillation of former versions of the MEF and a combination of the previous works of many, including but not limited to, the authors cited in this chapter (e.g., Laban, Stanley, Logsdon, Roberton, Gilliom, Maulden).

One of the primary goals of this text is to present a revised MEF that is easy to follow, easy to use, and meaningful for physical educators, classroom educators, and most important, children. We do this by focusing on the movement concepts, movement categories, and particularly, the movement elements, and their application to what we are calling the core content areas: educational games, educational gymnastics, and educational dance.

It is important for readers of this text to understand how the MEF is tied to current national standards.

Some of the classic outcomes of a movement education program are described in the first two National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE, a subspecialty group of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance [AAHPERD]) standards (2004):

  • Standard 1. Demonstrates competency in motor skills and movement patterns needed to perform a variety of physical activities.
  • Standard 2. Demonstrates understanding of movement concepts, principles, strategies, and tactics as they apply to the learning and performance of physical activities.

From NASPE, 2004, Moving into the future: National standards for physical education, 2nd ed. (Reston, VA: National Association for Sport and Pysical Education) 11.

The Philosophy That Makes Movement Education Different

All physical educators want to provide lessons that foster success. The MEF, however, focuses on not only fostering motor success, but also developing cognitive knowledge about movement. Movement education is about developing a very wide base so that students develop skill in executing many types of movement. To establish this wide base, the movement education approach uses a specific framework for classifying movement and encourages learners to build a movement vocabulary that they can apply to all subsequent movement content.

The MEF is adaptable to students of all ages and developmental stages. It serves as a thread that runs through all movement in all situations. As Logsdon and Barrett (1984) noted, “Movement is the content of physical education” (Logsdon et al., p. 141). Teachers can continually incorporate vocabulary from the framework into lesson introductions, feedback during a lesson, and lesson closures. Similarly, children can communicate with the teacher and with other children about their movement, thus creating a wonderful learning environment for all.

Student Problem Solving in Movement Education

Success for all, activity for all, and contributions by all are all key values in a movement education program. Specific approaches in presenting content are critical. Using methodology based on the process of discovery and techniques of problem solving (Gilliom, 1970) allows children to discover their own methods and ways of solving movement problems. Creative thinking is required, and individual solutions, which may be unique to the problem solver, are not only allowed but also encouraged because we all experience new and often more complex movement challenges throughout life. Children in movement education programs do much more than merely learn skills; they learn to apply movement elementsand create solutions to both simple and complex movement problems.

Guided Problem Solving in Movement Education

We address some guided discovery methods in the core content chapters of this book (11-13). According to Mosston and Ashworth (1986), the guided discovery approach involves students solving teacher-created problems with guidance from the teacher. In addition to guided discovery, teachers also provide students with learning cues. Chapter 3 provides examples of the teacher-directed cues for learning locomotor skills such as skipping, hopping, and jumping, as well as manipulative skills such as throwing and catching.

Problem-solving techniques were expounded upon by Gillion (1970). An example of putting teaching cues and problem solving together might sound like this: “Today, we are going to learn about the springlike actions of leaping, hopping, skipping, jumping, and galloping.” You might then present the learning cues via pocket chart cards (movement element definitions) for each of these skills. After formally presenting the definition of hopping, you can then informally remind the students that when we hop, we travel from one foot to the same foot, whereas jumping involves several different types of movement patterns. With these cues in mind, students may then be encouraged to demonstrate the various springlike actions by creating a traveling sequence using those actions. This task emphasizes a pure problem-solving approach.

Providing Choices Enhances Learning

The way you present the movement challenge or task can foster success by respecting students' individuality. One way to present a challenge is to provide extensions, making the task either easier or harder as needed. Following is an example of how you might use extensions with movement education.

A more traditional approach to presenting a movement problem related to rocking and rolling might be to ask all children to do a forward roll. However, using extensions, you might say, “Some of you may wish to try this next task, whereas others may choose to continue working on log rolls. For those who would like to try, think about rolling in a forward direction, keeping your chin tucked to your chest and pushing with your hands to help you transfer your weight onto the back of your shoulders as you complete rolling in a forward direction.” Other ways to offer extensions could be, “If you are ready, you can try . . .” or, “For those of you who would like to try a more difficult task . . . .” Giving students options in all situations helps them decide their comfort level in task completion (Logsdon et al., 1984; Rink, 2006).


The earliest inklings of movement education occurred in the late 1800s in the field of dance. The concept really didn't gain popularity and become known as movement education until the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s. The fitness boom and other curriculum models replaced movement education, possibly as a result of its complexity and the difficulty teachers had making it relevant to middle and high school physical education curricula. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the development of national content standards for physical education brought back the essence of movement education by emphasizing that children should know basic movement concepts and be able to perform basic movement patterns.

More Excerpts From Teaching Movement Education



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