In an article entitled “Swedish School Gymnastics” that appeared in an 1898 volume of the Parents’ Review, Timberg provides instructions on how a gymnastics lesson should be led. He begins with what the lesson should not include. For example, he indicates that setting a Swedish Drill lesson to music is not appropriate. In this article he writes:
The custom of performing free exercises according to music, on the other hand, is not to be recommended, as there is the fear of the rhythm then becoming the first consideration, at the expense of the precision of the movements.
In an additional article written for the Parents’ Review featured in 1904 Timberg cautions:
Music as a means of leading the exercises has other great drawbacks besides that of imparting an incorrect rhythm to a great number of movements. It is very apt to take the pupil’s attention away from the movement itself so that this becomes more or less a reflex act much to its detriment. For in order to get the full benefit from any movement, it is necessary that it should be executed with full volition, the change of activity from mental to motor centra in the brain being a most valuable part of its effect. This change will tend to make the performance of the exercises a much greater recreation than if they are done as mere mechanical acts, leaving the thoughts of the pupils free all the time to run on uninterrupted in the same grooves as before.
It is clear that Timberg believes setting a Swedish Drill routine to music was distracting and reduced the movements to mere mechanical reactions rather than mindfully-performed actions. He continues,
It may look very well to see a long and intricate set of exercises run smoothly according to the tune played, but appearances should never be our first consideration in these matters. Moreover, if we scrutinize such a performance, we will generally find the apparent smoothness to a great extent resulting from the fact that the performers do not stop in any position long enough to show whether it is correctly applied or not, and we cannot but realize that this is a very undesirable state of things, if we consider how the intended effect of a movement depends upon that it is executed with precision and to its full extent.
The preface to The Swedish Drill Teacher contains a warning:
… there is grave risk of the teaching becoming mechanical when ready-made tables are used, and in this way much of the value of the work is lost.
Timberg elucidates this concept when he writes in his 1904 Parents’ Review article:
The same objection applies to the learning by heart of long series of exercises. When this plan is adopted, the effort of constantly trying to remember what has to be done next will still further take away much of the good effect of the exercises. Nor is imitation pure and simple to be recommended, as the pupils then get their attention directed too much on the teacher instead of on themselves, besides which the teacher is in this case prevented from making those small manual corrections, a touch here and a pull there, which are such a useful help to the verbal instructions.
Yet The Syllabus Of Physical Exercises utilized by Charlotte Mason in the PNEU schools contains “Tables” of exercises, which amount to pre-established routines. I have personally prepared two “routines” to implement in the home school setting, which I have previously shared on this blog.
How do we reconcile these things?
The aim with these tables and routines is not to provide a rote script to be followed ad infinitum; rather, the goal is to provide a format that fosters familiarity and mastery of the exercises contained therein so that participants gain muscle memory and mental association with the various exercises and that they can then respond appropriately when given the command to perform a certain movement in an alternate order.
I was recently able to see the results of this in real life when our small Charlotte Mason co-op hosted a day during which we shared with fathers in the audience what we have been learning in community. Over the course of the year, our children have mastered the exercises in two routines and were able to demonstrate a new routine — using the same exercises, but in a different order — by relying on their listening skills when I gave my commands. I was very impressed with their performance!
The best way of leading a gymnastic lesson therefore remains that by word of command. This enables the teacher to make the class stop at or repeat any particular part of an exercise and gives him the opportunity of inspecting and correcting each different position. He is further able in this way to regulate by intonation as well as by choice of words the speed and duration of various movements, and above all it lends to the teacher that dominating power over the pupils’ minds which is no encroachment upon their rights as free citizens, but only trains them to act promptly and unhesitatingly and to get their bodies under the influence and control of their own will. Only when taught in this way the school gymnastics attain their highest educational value as well as physical effect.
These are wise words and advice from a man trained in the Swedish gymnastics method who contributed to the work of the PNEU by writing articles for the Parents’ Review, the magazine edited by Charlotte Mason that was intended to present ideas and “best practices” to its readers. As Timberg makes perfectly clear, Swedish Drill is teacher directed and student performed, with the habits of attention and perfect execution honed. Let us follow his advice in our homes today, learning to effectively direct our children in Swedish Drill and enabling them to perform the necessary exercises with full attention, perfect execution, and the joy of self-control.
Want to do Swedish Drill in your homeschool, but don’t know how to start? Coming soon … Swedish Drill Revisited: A Modern Approach to Charlotte Mason’s Recommendation for Physical Education by Dawn Duran (yours truly!). This 50+ page guide will be available soon right here on Afterthoughts. It’ll give you exactly what you need to implement Swedish Drill in your home this coming school year.
If you want to be notified when this is made available, please click here.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.