Building Better Block Play Part 1

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) and the first director of the Bureau’s nursery school, which opened in 1918.

In her 1933 book, The Art Of Block Building, Johnson shares ideas and observations from her extensive research into block play–including the following seven stages of block play children tend to move through as they grow and develop.

Johnson and her coworkers observed children in their program at block play and drew detailed sketches of what they observed. Her observations skills–as well as her skill at documenting her observations–were likely honed in her time as a nurse before she began working as an educator.

They observed a lot of block play and drew many sketches–although none of them were trained at drawing. In the last pages of the book, she writes: “The difficulty in gathering these examples from our records has been deciding which among many to include.”

Then she adds: “Many of the most intricate and enchanting constructions were too elaborate for the lay hand to sketch.”

Johnson was an innovator in progressive education and the development of nursery schools in the early twentieth century. In fact some of her contributions to child development predated Piaget’s findings. While Piaget’s name is rightfully well known in the early learning world today, Johnson’s contributions are mostly forgotten.

You’ll find links on the session’s resource page with more on Harriet Johnson if you want to dig deeper into the life of this early learning pioneer. You’ll also find a link to a PDF version of her book, The Art Of Block Building.


Harriet Johnson was a true early learning pioneer. She was both an innovator and a keen observer who dedicate her professional life to serving and understanding children.

After a few questions, we’ll dig into Johnson’s 7 stages of block play and ideas for supporting children in each stage.

Lesson tags: building better block play part 1
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