George E Johnson

George Ellsworth Johnson, a play administrator, author, and instructor of the early 1900s, believed that play was essential for children's physical development and health as well as being the precursor of later satisfying work, the means to shaping their emotional life, and the “mother of education.”1 As a teacher, George furthered the play movement with his practical and philosophical knowledge and thus influenced the next generation of educators and administrators in the recreation and related fields.

Born in Vermont in 1862, George moved west to Wisconsin to begin a teaching career. Later he moved back to New England to graduate from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire and then to become the principal of two rural academies. After further studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, George was hired in 1895 as the superintendent of schools in Andover, Massachusetts.2

Over the next 12 years, George gained practical experience through the schools in Andover and other Massachusetts cities that prepared him for becoming a teacher, writer, and lecturer of play. One program that brought him recognition was the summer play school he initiated in Andover, which was an informal play time that brought children and resources together. The six week school held at the public schools from 8:30 am to 12 noon included such activities as crafts, outdoor games, dancing, music, photography, swimming, nature activities, and facilitating any other interests of the boys and girls.3

A study of 1000 games which George began while at Clark University was first published as an article in Pedagogical Seminary in 1894. This study was revised and published as a book in 1907. Entitled Education By Plays and Games, it included a dedication to Dr. G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University at that time, and an Introduction by the same. In the book George explored “the meaning of play, the relation of play and work, and the history and application of play to education” including a layman's discussion of earlier educators' and psychologists' theories. Most of the book, which was called “practical for teacher and parents,” suggested play activities for five age groups from ages 0-15 years with applicable illustrations, game details, and equipment needs.4

Also in 1907 George concurrently became a part-time Professor of Play at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education and the Director of the Pittsburgh Playground Association, positions he held for the next six years.5 While there he continued the children's “vacation schools,” which led Henry S. Curtis to note that Pittsburgh was one of first cities to expand play activities to include “art, manual training, sewing, cooking, dramatics, storytelling, nature study, and gardening.”6

George's innovations led the Playground Association of America (PAA) to hold their third annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 1909. Additionally his play facilitating abilities were showcased at a similar PAA congress when he publicly led a group of local children in games, songs, and dances. Even though he had never worked with those particular children before, they were soon unconscious of the audience and playing with “zest and abandon” under his direction.7 The following year in 1910, George published What to Do at Recess, a small book of ideas for preschool and elementary school teachers to better utilize recess and playgrounds.8

During his time in Pittsburgh, George began serving on committees of the PAA, such as the Statistics Committee, Indian Affairs Committee, the Normal Course in Play Committee, and committees concerned with both the Boy Scouts and the Boys' Clubs.9 He also assisted in setting play space standards for both rural and urban schools and optimal supervision standards for play groups based on different ages and activities.

The New York School of Philanthropy, later known as the New York School of Social Work,10 hired George to direct their new Department of Play and Recreation in 1913 and in so doing they declared “Probably no man in the country is more able to direct such a department and bring to his students technical ability, a wealth of laboratory experience, and the spirit of play itself.”11

After two years in New York City, George joined the Harvard University staff where he would teach for the next sixteen years in the School of Education, eventually becoming an Associate Professor in their Graduate School of Education.12 While there he published his third book, Education Through Recreation (1916), numerous articles, and speeches. One concern of his was the prevailing tension between work and play ideologies. He believed that it was “one of the chief ends of education to develop a habit of joyousness in work. The fear that love of play will interfere with love of work is the most groundless of fears. The more a child loves to play, the more likely will he be to love work.”13 In fact he felt that play would lead a child to “a principle or spirit of motivation of life's activities. . . that enriches all effort, both in the process and in the product.”14

Similarly, George countered arguments of the day that play didn't need facilitation or supervision, a common reason for withholding playground appropriations, “Did a boy ever play baseball who was not taught by some one? A boy no more inherits the game of baseball than he inherits the Lord's Prayer.” He strengthened his position in the pamphlet “Why Teach a Child to Play” (1909) by noting that the young of any species that was taken out of their natural environment needed to relearn “natural” instincts – so it was with children in the modern era. He also felt they lacked opportunity to “achieve self-realization” through play.15

In a 1909 speech “Games Every Boy and Girl Should Know,” George outlined the three reasons for play: for physical development and conditioning, the mastering of mental development over physical abilities, and the instillation of moral and social values. He felt that “Play … is almost our only hope of adequate training of the emotions … of children and youth to right expression in individual experiences and in social relations.”16

Later after World War I, George also extolled “free and organized play” as a means to teach “children and youth to fight in ways to conserve the heroic qualities of man, to develop some of the noblest traits, and to make for peace and progress in the world.”17

George remained at Harvard until his death in August of 1931. Dean Henry W. Holmes characterized him as having a “quiet profundity of mind” and as an “example of patient industry that shames indolence, charity that shames hardness of heart, straightforwardness that shames duplicity, and more than all, the playful but unfailing ardor that casts out cynicism and makes doubt seem ignoble.”18

  • 1. Butler, George D. Pioneers in Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company, 1965. pp.76-79.
  • 2. Op.cit., Butler. p. 75.
  • 3. Op.cit., Butler. p. 80.
  • 4. Op.cit., Butler. p. 76.
  • 5. Op.cit., Butler. p. 81.
  • 6. Op.cit., Butler. p. 80.
  • 7. Op.cit., Butler. p. 82.
  • 8. Op.cit., Butler. p. 78.
  • 9. Op.cit., Butler. p. 82.
  • 10. Schaefer, Jaylene Krieg. “New York School of Philanthropy.” Learning to Give. < > 23 Nov. 2012.
  • 11. Op.cit., Butler. p. 81.
  • 12. Op.cit., Butler. pp. 75, 81.
  • 13. Op.cit., Butler. p. 76.
  • 14. Op.cit., Butler. p. 79.
  • 15. Op.cit., Butler. p. 77.
  • 16. Op.cit., Butler. pp. 78-79.
  • 17. Op.cit., Butler. p. 78.
  • 18. Op.cit., Butler. pp. 81-82.