Harriet Merrill Johnson

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Harriet Merrill Johnson (1886-1934) was a researcher, author, and one of the founders of the Bureau Of Education Experiments (now known as Bank Street College Of Education).

A former nurse, Johnson was the founder and first director of the bureau’s nursery school. The school opened in 1918. Staff included teachers, psychologists, and researchers. “The staff observed how children learned, and they began documenting the learning process in order to determine the environments and educational practices best suited to foster the growth and development of children. Their findings contributed to a fundamental reform in the way children were taught.”1

Johnson wrote a number of educational texts:

  • The Visiting Teacher (1916)
  • A Nursery School Experiment: Descriptive Report (1924)
  • Children in Nursery School (1928)
  • The Art of Block Building (1933)
  • School Begins at Two: A Book for Teachers and Parents (1936)

According to Jeroen Starling and Jerry Aldridge2:

Johnson has been credited as an innovator in progressive education and the development of nursery schools, the three applications of her work discussed in this summary have gone underreported. These include her trailblazing work in qualitative research methods in early education, her explanations of child development based on her observations of and interactions with young children, and her extensive research and understanding of block play.


Specifically, her contributions to child development predated Piaget’s findings. Franklin (2000) suggested, “The line traced from exploration of materials to representation parallels Piaget‟s discussion of the sensory-motor period and the evolution of representational functioning, which had not yet been published” (p. 67). Furthermore, Harriet M. Johnson is not as widely known for her studies of block play as Caroline Pratt, Jessie Stanton, or Patty Smith Hill. However, Johnson‟s research on block play continued to be reprinted and used by professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children until the turn of the millennium (see: Johnson, 1976, 1983, 1984, 1996, 2001). Johnson should be credited for teaching early childhood educators that the “focus on blocks and block building [is] part of a more encompassing concern with providing a physical environment geared to the child‟s state of development and optimized to promote intellectual and social growth” (Franklin, 2000, p. 52).

Below, you’ll find the complete work by Starling and Aldridge if you want to take a deeper dive into the work of this amazing woman.



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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Merrill_Johnson
  2. Staring, Jeroen & Aldridge, Jerry. (2015). From Nursing to Nursery School: The Life and Works of Harriet M. Johnson from 1900-1934. SSRN Electronic Journal. 4. 10.2139/ssrn.3399359.

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