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Published: June 28, 2011


A large, peculiarly American room or building in which students may participate in either formal or informal physical exercise, games, sports and dance. Usually equipped with a variety of equipment for GYMNASTICS and such sports as basketball and volleyball, gymnasia began to be added to school, college and university plants at the end of 19th century, after LUTHER GULICK developed formal physical education programs for elementary and secondary school curricula.
The word gymnasium, however, has other meanings in other parts of the world. Derived from the ancient Greek gymnos, meaning “naked,” the Greek gymnation was an outdoor exercise ground, where as early as 500 B.C. free Greeks and their children socialized and participated in physical and intellectual exercises deemed essential to the unity of the total being. Exercises were also deemed important for keeping young men fit for service in wartime. The most famous examples of the Greek gymnasia were the ACADEMY, which Plato (428–348? B.C.) founded in Athens in 387 B.C. and where he spent the rest of his life as a teacher, and the LYCEUM, where Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) taught from 335 to 323 B.C.
Transferred to Rome the institution went the way of the Roman Empire and was not revived until the 16th century, when German humanists emancipated education from church control by building their own schools, which they called Gymnasien, in reference to the traditional secular arts taught in ancient Greece. The word became the standard German word for any secular, nontechnical secondary school specializing in the traditional liberal arts. It had no association with physical education. Indeed, gymnastics in Germany is practiced in Turnvereins, or gymnastics clubs, and the only exercises practiced in Gymnasien are academic.
The gymnasium’s association with physical exercise was not reestablished until Americans adopted the word as meaning a room for the practice of gymnastics, which was introduced in the United States in the 19th century by German and Swedish immigrants (perhaps graduates of Gymnasien, whose meaning Americans may have misinterpreted). Today’s gymnasia range from relatively small, sparsely equipped, all-purpose playrooms in elementary schools to enormous, multi-sport college facilities, with space and equipment for basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and other sports and grandstands for spectators. Because of their small physical size and student populations, elementary school gymnasia are usually multiple- purpose facilities, with collapsible equipment that allows them to be converted into school cafeterias, auditoria, conference rooms and classrooms.