The Work of Play: The Progressive Child

boy and cat playing

Lucy Sprague Mitchell at a type writer

Lucy Sprague Mitchell

The rise of child psychology around 1900 inspired "progressive" educators to reimagine schooling from a child's perspective. What if, as John Dewey proclaimed, "learning by doing" better suited a child's natural capabilities than rote memorization? What if play, said Maria Montessori, was not idleness but "the work" of childhood?

At New York's progressive Bank Street School, Lucy Sprague Mitchell's pioneering language-development studies prompted a vigorous challenge to the common wisdom about books for the youngest ages. Her Here and Now Story Book asserted that preschoolers craved not fairy tales, but stories about the world they knew, as well as books that invited their playful, collaborative participation.

Mitchell's literary protégée Margaret Wise Brown led the charge in putting her revolutionary findings into practice, most famously in Goodnight Moon. An impressive array of artists lent their talents, too: Edward Steichen, Jean Charlot, Maurice Sendak, and Crockett Johnson, whose unflappable doodler Harold gave Mitchell's movement its poster child.

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Here and Now Story Book by Lucy Sprague Mitchell cover, yellow background with sketch of city skyline

Cover of Here and Now Story Book 

By Lucy Sprague Mitchell,  E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. , 1921

Here and Now Story Book

Written by Lucy Sprague Mitchell

Illustrated by Willem van Loon


The First Picture Book by Mary Steichen Martin cover, dark blue text on a blue background

Cover of The First Picture Book

By Mary Steichen Martin, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1930

The First Picture Book

Written and Photographed by Mary Steichen Martin and Edward Steichen


The Noisy Book by Margaret Wise Brown cover, a bright room with a small black dog

Cover of The Noisy Book

By Margaret Wise Brown, William Scott, 1939

The Noisy Book

Written by Margaret Wise Brown

Illustrated by Leonard Weisgard


Good Night Moon cover

Cover of Goodnight Moon

By Margaret Wise Brown, Harper and Brothers, 1947

Kerlan Features

Goodnight Moon

Written by Margaret Wise Brown

Illustrated by Clement Hurd


A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss cover, several small sketches of children playing on an aqua background

Cover of A Hole is to Dig

By Ruth Krauss, Hamish Hamilton, 1963

A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions

Written by Ruth Krauss

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak


Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson cover, small boy with a purple crayon drawing on walls

Cover of Harold and the Purple Crayon

By Crockett Johnson, Harper and Brothers, 1955

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Written and Illustrated by Crockett Johnson


The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster cover, a man is looking at a dog who has a clock in his side the background is blue

Cover of The Phantom Tollbooth

By Norton Juster, Epstein and Carroll, 1961

The Phantom Tollbooth

Written by Norton Juster

Illustrated by Jules Feiffer


Visions of Childhood
The Work of Play: The Progressive Child