Hill, Patty Smith (1868–1946)

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Hill, Patty Smith (1868–1946)

American educator and reformer in kindergarten schooling. Born in Anchorage, Kentucky, on March 27, 1868; died in New York City on May 25, 1946; the third of four daughters and fourth of six children of Will Wallace Hill (a Presbyterian minister and an educator)and Martha Jane (Smith) Hill; sister of Mildred J. Hill (1859–1916), a musician; graduated from Louisville Collegiate Institute, 1887; never married; no children.

Patty Smith Hill was the product of a remarkably progressive upbringing. She was born in 1868 in Anchorage, Kentucky, one of six children of Will Wallace Hill and Martha Smith Hill . Her father was a Presbyterian minister who ran his own Bellewood Female Seminary and later became president of the Synodical Female College at Fulton, Missouri. Her mother was privately tutored then followed a full course of study at Centre College, although at the time the school was not open to women. Both parents were deeply interested in developing their children's creative and intellectual abilities and were particularly concerned that their girls be educated in a profession so they would not have to "marry for a home."

Even as a child, Patty Hill planned to work with young children, and after graduating from the private Louisville Collegiate Institute in 1887, she entered a newly opened school for kindergarten teachers in the city. Under the direction of Anna E. Bryan , the curriculum offered an experimental approach to early childhood education that challenged the rigid procedures of Friedrich Froebel then in practice. After completing the course in 1889, Hill was put in charge of the demonstration kindergarten. When Bryan resigned in 1893, Hill succeeded her as head of the Louisville Free Kindergarten Association and the Louisville Training School for Kindergarten and Primary Teachers.

Hill continued to keep pace with the new philosophies and techniques in early childhood education, including those of John Dewey as well as Colonel Francis W. Parker, who visited the Louisville Training School in 1891. In 1896, she spent the summer at Clark University, studying with G. Stanley Hall, another pioneer in the field. As Hill became familiar with the newest innovations, she quickly incorporated them into her own work, thus becoming a leader in the burgeoning kindergarten movement. From 1904 to 1905, she participated in a series of lectures at Columbia University Teachers College, along with Susan E. Blow , who defended the conservative Froebelian theories in an alternating series of talks. The presentation, a virtual debate, was so successful that Hill was engaged as a visiting lecturer that fall and, in 1906, was appointed to a full-time faculty position at Teachers College. In 1908, she was elected president of the International Kindergarten Union.

From 1910 on, Hill headed up a new kindergarten department at Columbia, which also ran the experimental Horace Mann Kindergarten. She taught graduate courses for training school teachers and supervisors and was instrumental in formulating new curriculums for the experimental school. Embracing the empirical approach of her colleagues Edward Lee Thorndike and William Heard Kilpatrick, Hill experimented with a more natural, flexible classroom approach, exploiting the child's natural play instincts and making the learning experience realistic and meaningful. In 1923, the experimental work of the Horace Mann Kindergarten was published under Hill's editorship as A Conduct Curriculum for the Kindergarten and First Grade. In 1924, 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 1925 she founded the National Association for Nursery Education.

Of her many achievements, Patty Hill is also credited with the song "Happy Birthday," which she wrote with her sister Mildred J. Hill (1859–1916), a musician. The song was originally written as "Good Morning All" for the book Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which the sisters published together in 1898. Hill was also the inventor of the large scale Patty Hill blocks, which permitted children to build structures large enough to play in.

Hill, who never married, retired from Teachers College in 1935, after which she established and directed the Hilltop Community Center for underprivileged children. She died in her home at the age of 78. Although Hill left little in the way of writing, her legacy was passed on by her students, who carried her educational reforms to kindergarten classes across the nation.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Hill, Patty Smith (1868–1946)

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