Our Proud Heritage. NAEYC's First President: Patty Smith Hill
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Patty Smith Hill was instrumental in the formation of early childhood educational practice in the United States. Many of her ideals still constitute the foundation for educating and socializing young children. She is credited with introducing a child-centered philosophy to kindergarten teaching, stressing the importance of the creativity and natural instincts of children. Being strongly committed to help children from under-resourced communities, she insisted on the importance of the self-determination in children’s activities, believing that early learning that contributes to self-efficacy was a primary tool to overcome life hurdles and economic distress (Rudnitski 1994). Although today the systemic barriers families in chronically under-resourced areas face are better understood, Hill was a pioneer in believing that all children had the potential to learn and thrive.
Hill was invited to work with leading educators such as G. Stanley Hall—a pioneering American psychologist and educator—and John Dewey—an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer. Her ideals established the foundation for the modern kindergarten in the US today. Then in 1926, her dedication to young children led her to help found and serve as the first president of the National Association for Nursery Education (which later became the National Association for the Education of Young Children).
Hill was born on March 27, 1868, in Anchorage, Kentucky, where her father was a Presbyterian minister. Dr. William Hill founded Bellewood Female Seminary. As Bailey wrote in 1931, the Seminary was “for the daughters of the South near Louisville, Kentucky, as his contribution to the reconstruction years” (qtd. in Rudnitski 1994, 26). A graduate of Princeton University, Dr. William Hill believed higher education should be accessible to women so they could choose to have independence and live their own lives. In a 1927 interview with Amidon, Patty Smith Hill said,
This was a radical thing everywhere fifty years ago, particularly in the South. My father had a horror of girls marrying “just for a home” and he said that the only way to avoid this catastrophe was to prepare every young woman to “stand on her own feet” economically. For this reason from our earliest years sisters and brothers alike discussed together and with our parents the type of work we wished to pursue when we were grown. (qtd. in Rudnitski 1994, 26)
Hill’s mother, Martha, complemented her husband and his vision for life. She was a writer for the Louisville Courier Journal. Before marriage, she was refused admittance to a local college and was tutored privately by professors from the school in a college-level study but was denied a formal degree because she was a woman (Swanson, n.d.). Martha believed that children should be free to play and follow their own pursuits while also learning the value of hard work. As Chaffee wrote in 1925, Patty Smith Hill said,
My mother’s philosophy of life was a happy one. She said children should have every pleasure that there was not some good reason that they should not have—a radical point of view in those Puritanical times. . . . We children each had our own small garden. We were also allowed to play with hammer and nails. We used to work for days making playhouses, and our home was always open to other people’s children. My mother used to say, she’d rather have other people’s children at her house than to have her children at other people’s houses. Then she’d always know what was going on. (qtd. in Rudnitski 1994, 26)
Thus, Hill and her five siblings (three sisters and two brothers) were encouraged to be independent thinkers. They were given freedom to enjoy outdoor play and experiment with building materials such as bricks and boards found at their father’s carpentry shop at the seminary (Wellhousen & Kieff 2000). They spent hours exploring the woods and building with bricks, barrels, and boards—playing freely until their mother waved a red flag to signal for her children to come indoors. Even as Dr. Hill moved his family to serve different colleges throughout the United States, Mrs. Hill established extensive play areas at each new home.
The path to influence
Patty Smith Hill graduated from Louisville Collegiate Institute in 1887 at the age of 18, after which she joined the Louisville Kindergarten Training School, which had just been opened by Anna Bryan. Bryan had studied kindergarten education in Chicago and taught at the Marie Chapel Charity Kindergarten in the city. Hill entered as one of Miss Bryan’s first and youngest student teachers.
In the late 1800s, the ideas of Friedrich Froebel (a German educator who created the first kindergarten in 1837) were widely known and followed. Bryan encouraged Hill to freely interpret Froebel’s ideas and create her own approach to educating young children. Bryan and Hill experimented with the established, Froebel-inspired kindergarten pedagogy and inspired others to follow suit. By the early 1900s, through Bryan and Hill’s professional activities, Louisville became nationally recognized as a place in which innovative ideas about early childhood were being nurtured.
Bryan and Hill became staunch supporters of G. Stanley Hall’s visions for kindergarten pedagogy, moving away from the Froebelian approach of systemized learning to a more child-led pedagogy that drew on children’s interests and preferences. When Bryan left her position at the Louisville Kindergarten Training School to study with John Dewey at the University of Chicago, Hill became the principal of the Louisville Kindergarten. In 1893, Hill mounted an exhibit on her kindergarten methods in the Education Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. This exhibit drew a great deal of attention to Louisville and to Hill.
Hill became a prominent lecturer and leader of the International Kindergarten Union, which was founded in 1892 by educators concerned with the professional preparation of kindergarten teachers. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, her innovative approach to kindergarten education and to the education of teachers attracted the attention of G. Stanley Hall, who invited her to Clark University to study child psychology. Additionally, John Dewey offered Hill the opportunity to study at the University of Chicago. Hill continued to serve as director of the Louisville Kindergarten Training School while simultaneously taking summer courses with Hall, Dewey, and Luther Gulick, the founder of the playground movement (Swanson, n.d.).
While Hill was developing her ideals for young children’s learning, the field of psychology was growing and attempting to use methods approaching the physical sciences (Popkewitz 1991). The fields of child development and early education grew within universities during the first quarter of the 20th century, attempting to emulate psychology. Hill was influenced by the notions of a scientific study of children, which at the time was radical and progressive. The idea was to gather data that could be analyzed and reflected upon to create instructional methods and engaging activities through consideration of children’s needs, interests, and impulses.
John Dewey’s principles of education greatly influenced Hill, especially his theories of progressive, child-directed schools and moral education. She felt that young children needed socialization and free play to develop their full potential, and her classrooms were filled with toys such as cars, trucks, pots, pans, play money, and other loose parts to help children understand their world and engage in pretend play. In 1904, John Dewey became the head of Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy. Soon thereafter, Hill received an invitation from James Earl Russell, Dean of Teachers College, Columbia University, to lecture on her innovative views and stance on kindergarten education. By 1906, she was appointed to a full-time faculty position at Teachers College.
Because Hill’s alternative methods and ideals were slow to be accepted by her peers at Teachers College, Russell offered her the opportunity to establish a play room at the Speyer School in which she and colleagues could experiment with their new methods in a classroom of children who had not attended traditional kindergartens. They recruited children from 3 to 7 years of age who had no previous school experience and set to work designing materials and a curriculum suited for the children they had—not for an ideal of what people thought children ought to be (Hill 1906; Palmer 1906).
It was at this time that Hill created large-scale blocks—now known as Patty Smith Hill blocks—that permitted children to build structures large enough to play within. These blocks were often too heavy for children to handle alone, so they required cooperation, socialization, democratic interactions, and child-initiated learning. Hill’s blocks were intended to be played with on the floor in order to build structures large enough for children to engage in dramatic play. The blocks were also unique at the time because they used a peg, hole, and groove system, which kept the blocks in place. Hill strived to offer a learning environment in which children learn through, as she said to Amidon in 1927, “concentration inspired by enthusiasm for a job” (qtd. in Rudnitski 1994, 30).
Beginning in 1910, Hill developed and oversaw a new kindergarten department at Teachers College, which also ran the experimental Horace Mann Kindergarten. She taught graduate courses for training schoolteachers and supervisors and was instrumental in formulating new curricula for the experimental school. Hill educated kindergarten teachers to be responsible for creating an environment filled with worthwhile activities and for developing a growing classroom organization rooted in the experiences and needs of the children (Spodek 1982). Hill settled into Teachers College, becoming head of the Department of Kindergarten Education and full professor by 1922.
Using her influence to increase equity
Concern over the varying quality of emerging nursery school programs in the United States inspired Patty Smith Hill to gather with prominent figures in the field to decide how to best ensure the existence of high-quality programs. The International Kindergarten Union, which Hill became president of in 1908 and which represented kindergarten educators, established a committee to study and debate conflicting educational ideologies and to write and publish a set of recommendations for a clear policy on kindergarten education. Rather than produce a single report, this Committee of Nineteen (1913) issued a book containing three separate viewpoints. The first report was a declaration of Froebelian philosophy and an affirmation of traditional kindergarten practices, written by Susan Blow. The second report was a statement of child-led kindergarten principles and practices reflecting the philosophy of John Dewey, written by Patty Smith Hill. The third report, written by Elizabeth Harrison of Chicago, presented a conciliatory position and recommended a negotiation of the other two opposing positions (Committee of Nineteen 1913).
In 1921, Hill organized a meeting in Washington, DC, for a group of prominent figures in early childhood education to negotiate the issue of a manual, called “Minimum Essentials for Nursery Education,” that set out standards and methods of high-quality nursery schools. Three years later, as part of her belief in the scientific study of childhood, Hill was instrumental in organizing the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Teachers College, and in 1926 she founded the National Association for Nursery Education, which became the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 1964.
During the Great Depression, Hill became involved with the Federal Emergency Nursery Schools (Ewing & Hicks 2006), which became the starting point for her Manhattanville Project, a collaborative plan to rehabilitate the Manhattanville area of New York City. It brought together talent from Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Julliard School of Music. She retired from Teachers College in 1935 and used her experience in community support to establish and direct the Hilltop Community Center for children from under-resourced communities. The building, which was close to Teachers College, was donated by Jewish Theological Seminary. The furniture was donated by the Salvation Army.
While doctors funded by the New Deal provided health care for the neighborhood children and their families, teachers appointed by the government were supported by an experimental teacher training program at Teachers College. Hill had a vision of the Center changing societal attitudes through positive activities in the deprived and diverse neighborhood (Bloch 1992).
Throughout her retirement years, Hill continued her involvement at Teachers College through guest seminars and interests in international affairs. She labored for the education of young children for the remainder of her life, dying in 1946 at the age of 78.
Young children all over the world encounter Hill when they engage in large motor movement and play, when they paint freely at an easel, when they play with large blocks, when they choose their own activities based on their interests, and when the custodian comes into their classrooms to wash the floors at night (Rudnitski 1994). First and foremost a teacher, Hill’s legacy has been passed on by her students, who carried her educational enhancements to kindergarten classes across the nation.
Patty Smith Hill attributed a great deal of her philosophy and the successful dissemination of her ideas to her upbringing and her parents’ attitudes. The atmosphere of freedom—in which play was valued and women were encouraged to pursue a vocation based on interests—contributed greatly to her accomplishments. As Chaffee found in 1925, she viewed her parents as role models and recalled that by the time she was 8 or 9 years old, she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up, although she had never heard of kindergarten (cited in Rudnitski 1994).
Hill had worked with the children of desperately poor families in southern states during the Reconstruction era. She was deeply moved by the malnutrition, child labor, and high mortality rate among children living in poverty. She had developed a life-long commitment to democratic ideals and the importance of self-determination in activity—especially in childhood—as a means of empowering individuals. Her final contribution, the Hilltop Community Center, brought all of this together as a legacy to her life’s work and as a commitment to young children and their families.
Bloch, M.N. 1992. “Critical Perspectives on the Historical Relationship Between Child Development and Early Childhood Education Research.” In Reconceptualizing the Early Childhood Curriculum: Beginning the Dialogue, ed. S. Kessler & B.B. Swadener, 3–20. New York: Teachers College Press.
Committee of Nineteen. 1913. The Kindergarten: Reports of the Committee of Nineteen on the Theory and Practice of the Kindergarten. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ewing, E.T., & D. Hicks, eds. 2006. Education and the Great Depression: Lessons from a Global History. New York: Peter Lang.
Hill, P.S. 1906. “The Speyer School Experimental Play Room.” Kindergarten Review 17: 137–40.
Palmer, L.A. 1906. “Results of Observations in the Speyer School Experimental Play Room.” Kindergarten Review 17: 140–47.
Popkewitz, T.S. 1991. A Political Sociology of Educational Reform: Power/Knowledge in Teaching, Teacher Education and Research. New York: Teachers College Press.
Rudnitski, R.A. 1994. “Patty Smith Hill and the Progressive Kindergarten Curriculum.” Education and Culture 11 (1): 25–34.
Spodek, B. 1982. “The Kindergarten: A Retrospective and Contemporary View.” In Current Topics in Early Childhood Education, Volume 4, ed. L.G. Katz, 1–31. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Swanson, E.A. N.d. “Patty Smith Hill—1938.” Kappa Delta Pi. www.kdp.org/aboutkdp/laureates/hillpatty.php.
Wellhousen, K., & J.A. Kieff. 2000. A Constructivist Approach to Block Play in Early Childhood. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Photographs: public domain
Betty Liebovich lectures and tutors at Goldsmiths University of London on early years education in the BA (Hons.) Education, Culture & Society program; Primary PGCE program; MA Education program; and PhD program. She is the internationalisation liaison tutor for the Educational Studies department.
Vol. 75, No. 1