Harriet Merrill Johnson

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.


Have opinions and thoughts on this glossary entry? A tag suggestion? A word, phrase, website, or person we should add to the glossary? Find a typo, bad link, or miscategorized item? Share it all in the comments.

Help keep this glossary growing by becoming a patron or supporting Playvolution HQ in other ways.

Early Learning Information And Resources
Explorations Early Learning

Thanks To Our Patrons

Their support makes our work possible

Assistant Producers

Dawn Stonehocker

Shirley Rempel


Alaina Smith
Alexis Anne Williams
Ann Margulies
Annie Friday
Bethany Crave
Carly Storer
Carol Kohl
Cherie Davis
Cindy Bays
Elisabeth Amirahmadi
Elizabeth Nolasco
Hilary Peak
Karin Anne Gardner-Brown

Laura Spillman
Lizzy Babych
Margaret Alvarez
Mary DeLay Tracy
Miranda Lynn
Monica Morrell
Peggy Miller-Evenson
Sabrina’s Family Day Care
Shannon Tremblay
Sharon Lehr
Shirley Rempel
Stacia Ceryes
Stephanie Hayes

We’re reconfiguring our patron program.
New patron opportunities available soon.
Join for free and become part of the community

Supporting “Bad” Behavior

Activities like running, climbing, throwing, spilling, punching, pinching, kicking, biting, tattling, and yelling are often labeled as bad behavior and many early learning settings attempt to limit them–if not outright ban them. This session take a contrarian view, looking at these activities as learning opportunities and offers up ideas for encouraging and supporting them. It turns out these things can be done in safe ways–without hurting others–and don’t have to create friction between children and their caregivers.

Support Playvolution HQ

creating free content isn’t free

If you find our content here useful, entertaining, or interesting, consider ways you can support the site and our efforts to keep the content flowing.

For example, using our affiliate link when shopping Amazon is a great way to help-you pay the same amount and we receive a small percentage that’ll help keep the site up and running.

You can also support our work by becoming a patron via Patreon


Stay Updated

Let Them Play Poster Set

Receive regular play, professional development, and caregiver self-care updates. Plus, receive a coupon code for a free download of our Let Them Play poster set.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Playvolution HQ Founder at

I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.


  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.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments