Early Childhood Education

Hill, Patty Smith (1868-1946)

 

Patty Smith Hill was a well-known figure in the Kindergarten Movement of the late nineteenth century and an advocate of progressivism within the International Kindergarten Union. In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Head of the Department of Kindergarten Education at Teachers College Columbia, she became a leader in efforts to professionalize early childhood education and improve the status of teachers.

Hill was born in 1868 in Anchorage, a small town outside Louisville, Kentucky, where her parents Mary Jane Smith Hill and William Wallace Hill had founded the Bellewood School for Young Ladies in 1861. During her early years, her family lived a prosperous and untroubled life at Bellewood. Their security ended in 1874 when her father decided to pursue his career in the West. The Hills and their six children moved to Missouri and then to Texas. William suffered a series of financial setbacks, his health failed, and he died in 1879. Mary Jane and the children returned to Kentucky and spent the next several years struggling with poverty and recurrent illness. Support from her grandparents finally enabled Hill to attend Louisville Collegiate Institute and complete Kindergarten training.

In 1888, Hill became the Head Teacher at the Holcombe Mission Kindergarten in Louisville and began to introduce innovations within a traditional Froebelian context. Influenced by her studies at summer institutes with Colonel Francis Parker and G. Stanley Hall, she designed a sequence of classroom activities tied to child development. She published her observations in The Kindergarten Review, became the Director of the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association, and demonstrated her successful classroom methods at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Educators from across the country came to Louisville to see Hill’s classroom. John Dewey visited in 1893 and Hill went to study with him at the University of Chicago the following summer.

By the turn of the century, Hill’s challenges to Froebelian orthodoxy had become well known and were threatening to split the Kindergarten Movement. Within the International Kindergarten Union, in contrast to the “Uniform Plan” advocated by traditionalist Susan Blow, Hill was urging teachers to adopt an experimental approach and adjust their curricula to the special needs and social circumstances of the child. The controversy continued when Hill, “that young radical in the South,” and Blow were invited to offer a joint course in Kindergarten practices at Teachers College Columbia (TCC). In the “friendly warfare” that followed, Hill’s engaging style and more up-to-date views won over the students and faculty in attendance.

Hill was appointed to the TCC faculty in 1905, was elected president of the International Kindergarten Union (IKU) in 1908, and became Head of TCC’s Department of Kindergarten Education in 1910. At Columbia, she developed a rigorous course of study for early childhood students, built a highly respected graduate program, and maintained strong connections with the public schools. During the final years of her career, she worked with colleagues to establish an experimental college and, as part of that effort, directed a community-based nursery school program in the impoverished Manhattenville neighborhood. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia in 1929 and retired in 1935.

During her long career, Patty Smith Hill established model classrooms, teacher training institutes, and cooperative community centers that drew national and international attention. She authored stories and songs for children, including “Good Morning to You” and “Happy Birthday to You,” designed child-appropriate classroom furniture and learning equipment, and conducted observational studies of young children at play. She wrote extensively on curricula and pedagogy. Her collaborations with other educators resulted in two collections that defined the early scholarship within the field of early childhood education: Experimental Studies in Kindergarten Education and A Conduct Curriculum for the Kindergarten and First Grade. See also Froebel, Friedrich.

Further Readings: Hill, Patty Smith, ed. (1915). Experimental studies in kindergarten education. New York: Teachers College Press; Hill, Patty Smith, ed. (1923). A conduct curriculum for the kindergarten and first grade. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Snyder, Agnes (1972). Patty Smith Hill: Dynamic leadership in new directions. In Dauntless women in childhood education. Washington, DC: Association for Childhood Education International.

Susan Douglas Franzosa