Perkins School for the Blind pioneered the first physical education program for students who were blind in the United States. When Samuel Gridley Howe opened the school’s doors in 1832, he was immediately troubled by his students’ poor health. In that era, children who were blind were customarily treated as invalids, prevented from doing anything for themselves. Fearing they might be injured, their families discouraged them from enjoying physical activity. As a result, children who were blind were often weak and vulnerable to every illness.
Howe introduced his charges to fresh air and exercise in the belief that it would strengthen both their bodies and minds. The schedule was rigorous, and in 1837 he described his approach: "It is a principle to have frequent short recesses; to change the subject of study often, and to call into operation the different faculties in succession; in this way, and by the habit of commencing at half-past six o’clock, an hour and a half before breakfast, the pupils get through with much intellectual and physical exercise in the course of each day, without fatigue."
Howe’s insistence on exercise and physical activity had immediate benefits; his pupils became stronger and moved through activities with greater energy. When the school moved to South Boston in 1839, Howe was thrilled with the site’s possibilities: miles of walking paths through open countryside and proximity to the ocean, in which the boys bathed daily, even in cold weather. Perkins' physical education program was far ahead of the training offered in the public schools.
Perkins’ second director Michael Anagnos saw the need to educate children who were blind at a younger age, and established the Kindergarten for the Blind in 1887. Nearly 50 years after the founding of Perkins, Anagnos found that youngsters entering the kindergarten were still being "overprotected" by their families and even "treated like infants." They were weak and had not "developed any skills, even in using their hands." The curriculum at the kindergarten improved the students’ health, strength and self-reliance by emphasizing the benefits of play and physical activity.
A path to physical fitness
In Europe at the turn of the 19th century, education was transformed by the "playground movement." Sir Francis Campbell, director of the Royal Normal College for the Blind in London and a former Perkins teacher, was one of the leaders of the movement, which recognized the value of play as a path toward physical fitness. Campbell’s goal was "to discover and arrange suitable games and outdoor sports which would offer irresistible attractions for the blind," making physical fitness enjoyable. (Buel, Sports for the Blind, 1947, p. 23) The gymnasium of the Royal College was considered one of the most complete in all of England. "Besides the gymnasium there were skating rinks, a swimming pool built in 1883 and a large playground of sixteen acres." (Buel, Sports for the Blind, 1947, p. 22)
One of the teachers at Campbell’s Royal College was Edward Ellis Allen, a young American from Massachusetts who was deeply influenced by Sir Francis Campbell. When he returned to the United States, he taught at Perkins for two years before becoming principal of Overbrook School for the Blind. Allen’s transformation of the Pennsylvania institution included introducing the techniques and principles of the playground movement. From Overbrook, the movement spread across the United States.
In 1907, Dr. Allen became the third director of Perkins. When he arrived at the South Boston campus he found it very crowded. Street re-grading, the construction of campus buildings and development in the immediate neighborhood severely restricted access to the ocean and to open space for recreation and walking. Allen wrote in the 1907 Annual Report: "Hopefulness is a state of mind dependent on physical vitality. Unless the institution imparts such vitality it imparts nothing - its work is useless."
Dr. Allen reintroduced daily showers and as much exercise as possible in the cramped South Boston playground. He required teachers to do yard duty and to actively encourage their pupils to run and play. He added play equipment in the Kindergarten and Primary School in Jamaica Plain. A Harvard student in 1912 described the Jamaica Plain play area this way:
"Mechanical facilities for amusement have almost swamped the grounds since Mr. Allen’s directorship. Some of these - on both sides of the field - are: two trolley coasters, two wire guide running tracks, a steel slide (used by the boys with the added precaution of a piece of carpet to save the seat of their pants), a wooden slide for the sleds of the girls or for playing tag in snowless time, countless tilts, a giant plank swing, a rocking boat for the girls, a box-seat merry-go-round and lastly, a circle bars or what the children dub 'iron merry-go-round.'"
Room to run
Dr. Allen made the best use possible of the playground area on the South Boston campus, but the school simply needed more room. In 1912, Allen and the school’s trustees moved Perkins to new, spacious quarters with acres of open land in Watertown. The main building boasted a swimming pool and a bowling alley, and both Lower and Upper Schools had fully equipped gymnasiums. The following is a 1912 description of the new gymnasium in the Howe building:
"It is a hall two stories high and of 90 feet in length with a running track in the balcony about the sides, 15 windows light the hall from above the balcony while seven slits - on the floor level - aid the upper windows in giving illumination. Nevertheless, it is rather dark on a cloudy day. The gymnasium is well equipped with the best supplies, such as ropes, rope ladders, horizontal Swedish ladders, stall bars, adjustable parallel bars, the horse, wall machines (i.e., weights), parallel bars, dumb-bells, punching bag, etc. The running track has a railing with a special hand guide about it and in addition the outer corners of the turns are raised. The floor is made of a linoleum preparation; and all the apparatus is removable, as was the case at Jamaica Plain."
Team sports and athletic events were a natural outgrowth of the renewed emphasis on physical education classes at Perkins. The earliest photograph of a school sports team dates from South Boston in 1908, with the caption, "Athletic Team, Boys Department." Perkins participated in the First Outdoor Contest of the National Athletic Association of Schools for the Blind, held on May 16, 1908. The events included shot put, standing broad jump, standing high jump, three standing jumps, running broad jump, 50-yard dash, football throw, 50-yard three legged race and 50-yard sack race. Dr. Allen reported:
"Our boys took part in May in an interscholastic contest with 12 other schools for the blind, each on its own grounds, we're holding our meet at the kindergarten. Their time and opportunity for practice had been so limited here that they were at a great disadvantage, but while they did not win in any event they made a creditable showing."
In 1910 athletes from four schools for the blind (Overbrook, Batavia, Boston and Pittsburgh) met at Overbrook, PA and "contested in running dashes, broad and high jumping and shot putting. Perkins came out third."
Just a short time after the move to Watertown, the boys’ athletic team hosted an indoor track competition against Framingham High School. Dr. Allen included this summary in his Annual Report to the trustees:
"In the gymnasium on March 12, 1912, the Perkins Institution boys defeated a team from Framingham High School in an indoor track meet, the score being 53 points to 9 points. The Framingham boys were point winners in but four events. This was the first time that the Perkins Institution boys ever contested with a high school in track athletics, but it marks a growing tendency among our pupils to abandon contests with other schools for the blind in favor of those with schools for the seeing, and in these meets they neither ask nor expect concessions of any kind."
Football remained a popular intramural sport on campus for many years. In his 1947 book, Sports for the Blind, Charles Buel described how the game was played: "boys with no vision play as center, guards and tackles, while the partially seeing fill the other positions on the team. On defense as many partially seeing boys as possible are used, but the team is still at a distinct disadvantage. Visually handicapped boys have difficulty in tackling the opposing ball carrier. When the opponents put the ball into play, the partially seeing boys shout ’hike’ which is the signal for the sightless boys to charge forward and try to break up the interference and get the ball carrier sometimes. The author has witnessed charging totally blind linemen throw opponents for a loss of ten to fifteen yards." (Buel, Sports for the Blind, 1947, p. 67)
The boys held competitions throughout the school year to determine the best football players. In June the "individual champions of the school meet those of the local high school and the team of the Pennsylvania School for the Blind." (AR, 1922, p. 22) Later, the boys also competed with teams from the New York Institute for the Blind. Although the teams were not always victorious, such competitions offered other rewards. The following is Dr. Allen’s account of a meet in New York:
"On June 7, 1928, six of the boys and myself left for New York via the canal. The trip was delightful. Even the opportunity to dance was given the boys, as there were some young ladies on board whom we knew. The track meet with the New York School was of the highest order. Our boys took their beating in the best of spirit; they were true sports and I am tremendously proud of them. No one could have wished for a finer meet, a better spirit, or a better group."
Beginning in 1917, both the boys and the girls participated in on-campus athletic competitions that continued throughout the academic year. In June, the cottage with the most points won a trophy or a banner that was proudly hung in its living room. Trophies from these events are displayed in the Perkins Museum.
The inter-cottage competitions were popular for several decades. Initially, the boys’ events were primarily track and football, but eventually the competitive activities were expanded to include dancing, swimming and field sports. During the war years, the boys’ cottages were not full, so they were divided into two teams, blue and white.
Girls’ events were more varied. In 1922 Dr. Allen reported, "All the girls of our Lower School jump rope. This season both they and the Upper School girls are walking on stilts, a novel experience for them. In October these girls had a grand outdoor field meet in which the members of different cottages competed for excellence in running, jumping, archball, tug of war, etc."
Wrestling was introduced at Perkins in the 1930s and quickly became popular. The Annual Report of 1941 states: "wrestling is beginning to appeal to more and the boys are doing fairly well at it. Five of them competed in the State Champion Wrestling Tournament for High Schools, held at Tufts College." (Annual Report, 1941, p.42) By 1944 the athletic department considered wrestling a major sport and a team of eight boys competed in several meets with both public and private schools and schools for the blind.
A league of their own
The Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind (EAAB) was established in 1946, eventually growing to include eight eastern schools for the blind. EAAB organizes both track and wrestling meets, and Perkins teams have competed in these events regularly, often bringing back trophies and ribbons to display.
In 1947, a Perkins girls’ athletic team competed off campus for the first time. The athletes went to Overbrook for Girls’ Field Day, where they were joined by representatives from four other schools for a "very happy occasion." This event later became known as Girls’ Play Day and continued on an annual basis for many years, joined in the 1950s by a Boys’ Field Day. Photographs of Perkins athletes and sports teams from 1909 through the 1940s can be seen at the Sports Photo Gallery.
Cheerleading, still a popular Perkins activity, is mentioned for the first time in the annual reports of the 1950s. In 1955, the cheerleaders accompanied the wrestling team to New York for a match.
Brand new facilities
In 1960 a new gymnasium was built adjoining the original one. For years it had been difficult to accommodate the competing activities in a single space. Wrestling, which had grown so much in popularity, required the use of heavy mats that had to be moved when other activities were planned. With the addition, the old gym could be dedicated to wrestling. The new gym offered a much better running track, an ideal surface for roller-skating, and a full-scale basketball court, with buzzers behind the backboard to guide the shots of students who are totally blind. The new gym also accommodated a trampoline, which was included as an event in the inter-cottage competition in 1961. The crowning glory was a new automated bowling alley, donated by the parents of a Perkins student.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sports continued to play an important role in life at Perkins. Yearbook biographies of graduating seniors often mentioned the student’s participation in wrestling, track, swimming, baseball, basketball, bowling, cheerleading, gymnastics and skiing. During these years the inter-cottage competitions were replaced with an annual field day, often held in June, at which students challenged staff to events like three-legged races and tug-of-war.
Making sports accessible
During this era there was increased emphasis on making games more accessible, and "beep baseball" and "goal ball" became popular. Beep baseball is a very modified version of traditional baseball that uses beeping balls, buzzing bases and a limited field. Goalball is played on a rectangular court on the floor of a gymnasium, with a goal at either end. All markings are tactile, and all players, regardless of degree of vision, must wear blindfolds throughout the game. Each team of three attempts to roll the ball across the opposing team’s goal line while defending its own.
Perkins continues the commitment to exercise and physical education established by Samuel Gridley Howe so long ago. Today’s students participate in physical education from preschool through high school, benefiting from the lessons of teamwork and competition. Enthusiastic athletes compete in EAAB events including swimming, wrestling, cheerleading, goal ball, bowling and track. The Perkins athletic program also includes golf, skiing and rowing. Students develop personal fitness regimes, including walking, jogging, cycling, yoga and weight training, adapted to their individual skills and needs.
Suggested citation for scholars
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Sports. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.