Gym Class Parachutes: Why?

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I wasn’t some non-sporto who dreaded the idea of gym class as a child. I was a little JOCK who WENT ALL OUT in GYM CLASS and was SWEATY and STUNK for the rest of the day. I grew up playing sports year around and always looked forward to gym class in elementary school. The problem was that some days you showed up ready to shoot some hoops or break out the kickball, but instead your gym teacher tells you you’re going to square dance or even worse, greets you with a PARACHUTE (honestly square dancing is worse but that’s not what this article is about). Listen buddy, we’re in Amherst, Ohio in 1989, not in a plane over the Belgian countryside in 1944. And even if we were, we wouldn’t be sharing one parachute, and drafting children at 9 is frowned upon. Anyway, you get it.


Due in all likelihood to some contract awarded by Reagan to Lockheed Martin, parachutes were part of elementary school gym class curriculum in the 1980s (and 90s and probably today because defense contractors gotta eat). Anybody who showed up with a hankering for dodgeball was out of luck. The only ball to make an appearance was maybe a beach ball, which would then be placed somewhere in the middle of the parachute and flung about via everybody flapping the parachute, like we were fanning an invisible Middle Eastern sultan.

The Wikipedia entry for “Playground parachute” (Lockheed got to them, too!) lists seven distinct games related to the parachute, and I suppose this means teachers had to get more creative after lugging out this stupid piece of fabric year after year because I only really remember two. “Ball games” is one I already mentioned, the game where you get to do everything with the ball except for the two fun things to do, touch it with your hands or feet. The other game is referred to as “teepee” in the entry. I don’t remember what it was called in my class, but the basic idea was to flap some air into the parachute, pull it over your head and down to the ground, then sit on it. The parachute forms a dome with all of the children inside. I honestly relate to this game quite a bit, because my favorite mode of existence is “indoors, encased in darkness.” Point on the board for the dumb parachute.

It was ’89. Maybe it was actually Bush’s influence?

None of the links that came up in Internet searches related to gym class parachutes revealed anything about the history behind it, so I’ve decided the Reagan and Lockheed thing I suggested earlier is canon. One thing I’m discovering in these searches is that a lot of people don’t appear to share the same loathing of the parachute that I feel. In addition, I tweeted about parachutes being dumb (when you are starved for attention and attuned to the fact that producing content is hard you have to weave this stuff into as many mediums as possible- yes, I also have a stand up bit on gym class parachutes I’m currently building in my head) and I found out that several of my friends, including my very own wife do not share my (obviously correct) view of the inherently disappointing gym class parachute day. I say that I was surprised but it makes perfect sense: if you hated gym class, the only instances in which you are going to enjoy gym class are those in which you’re doing distinctly non-gym class things. It’s like one of those “in order to save the blah blah blah we had to destroy it.” Oh hey, you know where that quote came from? Vietnam! And we’re back to jumping out of planes over Belgium in WWII, Ronald Reagan, and Lockheed Martin. I love it when an article comes full circle.

If you were hoping that we’d get into some more of the good gym class games (dodgeball, basketball, floor hockey) and some of the godawful ones (parachutes, square dancing, presidential physical fitness) I will definitely cover all of that in the future. I’ll even talk about how we learned choreographed dance moves that went along with the song “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. Was that a common thing?

Why am I in your gym class?

What was your least favorite gym class game? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter

If you want to re-live those gym school days, you can pick up a parachute by clicking the image below. 



  1. I actually know the history on this, as I know the inventor! She was a phys ed teacher in New York around that time and had contacted the local air force base to borrow some parachutes for her classes. The board of education noticed and made a deal with Lockheed to incorporate the parachutes into their curriculum. She is still alive (shes now in her late 80s) and recently finished her bachelors degree from her original alma mater, 60 years after dropping out to raise children. She is a senior Olympian and my hero.


  2. As a child of the eighties and son of a Vietnam Vet we had a couple old parachutes of our own. I certainly did enjoy popcorn, trading places and the other parachute games. I always assumed that someone had developed a fun and inclusive physical education curriculum based around parachutes because they were novel, easy to come by and as military surplus is often decommissioned, maybe it was cheap or deductable. Like why my school library had painted and carpeted old clawfoot tubs to look like submarines for kids to lounge in or tractor tire climbing structures. My gradeschool even had some giant segments of concrete sewer pipe to climb around on. I never considered it was some creepy Reagan era Cold War scheme. Even though, as a “non-sporto” I felt the post was a little negative in tone, I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.


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