Making America flesh: Physicality and nationhood in early twentieth-century physical education reform

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At the turn of the twentieth century, urban reformers across the United States became preoccupied with providing recreation facilities for urban children. Municipal park departments, boards of education and local philanthropic associations established supervised playgrounds, recreation parks, and vacation schools, in order to energize America’s youth and transform its fledgling bodies into healthy future citizens. In addition to the daily schedule of physical exercise and games, playground groups also organized a series of exhibitions, field days and parades to demonstrate the positive effects of physical education on the nation’s young bodies. Such demonstrations were overtly patriotic spectacles, incorporating transparently nationalistic rituals and symbols. Rather than focus on the symbolic currency of these events, however, I argue that the scientific logic of physical education renders a symbolic reading quite incongruent. Playgrounds drew from the emerging fields of child psychology and popular theories of psychosocial disorder. From these, a new field of play and physical education theory constructed the development of child consciousness as a mechanical and, more importantly, muscular process. Aspects of character, including national identity, were increasingly sought directly through children’s physicality. The paper therefore rejects the seemingly symbolic function of public spectacles of fitness. Likewise, while recent interventions by non-representational theory might appear to coincide with the psychological rationale of playgrounds, they too must be treated with caution or risk affirming the success of an explicitly nation-building project. Instead, this paper seeks to do justice to the logic of playground reform as a real and potent strategy to produce socially useful subjects without according that logic permanent and efficacious status.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)417-442
Number of pages26
JournalCultural Geographies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2004


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