Games of character: team sports, games, and character development in Victorian public schools, 1850–1900

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This article examines the ascendance of team sports as tools of “character building” in British Victorian public schools in the second half of the nineteenth century. The focus of this enquiry is the commonly overlooked pedagogical innovation underlying this process–the utilisation of organised games as educational tools. Relying on Roger Caillois' delineation of the unique qualities of game playing, I explore how team sports’ game qualities shaped their educational function and perception in Victorian public schools. Broadly stated, these game qualities enabled team sports to function as an ideal site for shaping on-court behaviour, while limiting their long-term effect on student conduct. Two central limitations of the Victorian application of game playing are pointed out. First, offering an organised model of play, team sports increased adult control over students’ play patterns, yet they concurrently undermined student agency within play, and the relevance of these activities to external contexts. Moreover, Victorian educators assumed that lessons learned on the court would readily carry over to other areas of students’ lives and failed to meaningfully incorporate team sports into the broader educational curriculum. These lessons concerning the educational function of games are particularly timely in light of the growing pervasiveness of games, physical and virtual, in educational contexts and in children’s lives in general.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)364-380
Number of pages17
JournalPaedagogica Historica
Issue number4
StatePublished - 4 Jul 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Victorian public schools
  • character
  • games
  • play
  • sports

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education
  • History


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