For some years now I have been interested in the potential of physical education (PE) to support inquiry and learning. I have explored this in PE classes and academic courses and also engaged in conversations with other interested teachers. In this article I would like to bring together several perspectives on the role of the body in learning. I hope this will elicit responses from others that will help us to strengthen and deepen the way we look at the overall role and practice of PE. To introduce the theme I present some of the thoughts of Lorenzo Castellari of Brockwood Park School.

Exploring New Dimensions in Physical Education

There is an ancient Roman saying: mens sana in corpore sano, “a healthy mind in a healthy body” or rather, and I don’t think I’m misinterpreting, “ahealthy mind is in a healthy body”. The two go together.

In our thought-based existence we have a conception of our body as a vehicle of our mind, a vehicle that we own and which we can use however we wish. We think for instance that if we are not athletically inclined we can let our bodies sit around while we use our brains, which we prefer. And when we feel unhappy we try and think our way out of it. It rather seems that our intellectual, emotional and physical states are closely interconnected and maybe are one. A good walk takes care of some gloomy feelings in a way that no amount of talking does. I think the body has its own requirements for growth and well being and we have to cater for those. It may be that the body’s instinct to gain strength and other physical capacities is part of our evolutionary conditioning from the past.

Since the present times don’t require the same kind of performances, we feel that the body does not deserve the same kind of support. But then, whatever the prowess that one species or other is capable of–a monkey’s voltiges in the high canopy, a hawk’s flight-acrobatics, a salmon swimming up a waterfall–their exercise seems to go with great enjoyment and intrinsic meaning. Part of the joy of being alive is to do with a healthy use of our bodies. And I think most of us have experienced some of this to a degree or other.

I hold the opinion that almost all bodies are capable of amazing physical excellence and I don’t see why we should not give this due attention. Physical activity may be a matter of quality rather than quantity. For an unfit person, to climb a hillock may be as rewarding as a long vertical ascent for a mountaineer. K asked somewhere, “Can you run several miles without getting tired?” He also suggested that in the schools, students should do a lot of dance. So, I say, let’s give our students – and staff! – plenty of opportunities and challenges to stretch the body’s capacities in all directions.

I also think that our conditioning expresses itself in our bodies. You look at virtually anyone and you see some peculiar physical habits, stiffnesses, and postures, which suggest the influence of mental states, and which probably influence those in turn. I have experienced on a few occasions how closely connected my anxieties and my muscular tensions are. We need to dedicate energy to learn how to listen, in general and also to our bodies. To sit, or lie down, or even stand still for a long while and pay attention outside and inside. K encouraged people to have such a short break every day. He spoke about sitting or lying still, without moving anything, having even the eyes become quiet, not trying to look at anything as they tend to do even with closed eyelids. I think that the movement of thought is closely knit with the activities of the body and the eyes are so central in this. For me relaxation has always meant letting go of muscle tensions together with obstinate thoughts.

I agree that there is something more to explore and bring about in physical education in our schools. This is true both in terms of improving the quality of the programs we have, and also as a way of exploring the deepest intentions of the schools.