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The early childhood program at Fort Hill serves as a laboratory for Smith College. Students and faculty conduct research and observations and complete field work at the site.

Please click the following links to see examples of how Smith College students and faculty have collaborated with the children and educators at Fort Hill:





Jill de Villiers and Peter de Villiers, Psychology

For over 25 years at Smith, we have conducted studies of language development and related cognitive achievements in preschool children, often enlisting the help of the children at Fort Hill and Sunnyside.  Many of you will have signed the slips from our letters requesting you to permit your child to join a study.

We were fortunate enough to obtain a modern eyetracker, a machine that follows eyegaze on a screen even in young children.  This is allowing us to measure understanding of language and social scenes without demanding any overt response such as pointing or talking, and we are excited to be using it first at Fort Hill for a student's thesis work!

All of our studies must pass by the Institutional Review Board for the use of Human Subjects at Smith, who make sure that the studies meet the requirements for the protection of the rights and confidentiality of the children.

But what do we do?  In this space we provide a short summary of current work we have completed recently and links to our larger website where you can read about our funded projects and peruse recent papers if you wish to download them.

We have a small testing space right off the main hall in Fort Hill, and there is a one-way window if you ever want to see us at work.  We generally show children picture books we have made with specially designed questions, or we play games with puppets to see if they can teach the puppet to "talk right", or we ask them to guess what someone will do next in a story we act out or show on video.  Some of our work is "pure" science, but much of it has very real practical outcomes.

Language and Theory of Mind
Fort Hill was the site of a longitudinal study of 3 and 4 year olds that demonstrated that certain language gains were necessary before children could reason about another person's beliefs and knowledge.  This work was extended across several languages, and confirmed with Deaf children who often have delayed language development if they are learning oral language.  We are still pursuing how language assists thinking in this important domain, and have a new grant to study a very large group of low-income preschoolers in Texas and Florida over several years as part of a curriculum intervention project. 

We are also attempting to develop intervention materials that might help children with special difficulties, such as in autism.


African American English
For many years we have been involved in studying how African American children acquire the special properties of the dialect spoken by many African Americans.  We had a contract from NIH to develop a suitable language assessment test that would not be biased against dialect speakers, but pick out children who had language difficulties. In developing this test, we piloted many of the items on children in the Smith day care centers, though the test was standardized on over 3,000 children throughout the country.


Language Acquisition
For all of our time at Smith we have studied language acquisition in the preschool years, with a focus on semantics, syntax and pragmatics.  Fort Hill was the site of a longitudinal study of how children understand complex questions, of how they understand quantifiers like "every", of how they produce relative clauses, of article... in fact, they have contributed enormously to our understanding of how English develops!




Borjana Mikic, Engineering

In recent years, the CECE has served as the community partner for EGR100, Engineering for Everyone, an introduction to engineering through participation in a semester-long team-based design project.  Students develop a sound understanding of the engineering design process, including initial problem identification, brainstorming, background research, establishment of design criteria, development of metrics and methods for evaluating alternative designs, prototype development, and proof of concept testing.  Student teams worked with clients (teachers) and users (children) from the CECE to design experiential learning tools for preschool children.

Examples of projects include:

Building Big:

Preschool children are fascinated by building large structures out of any available materials.  The act of handling and constructing large objects contributes to their sense of power and autonomy, and using these structures encourages creative, imaginary play while at the same time teaching them the concepts of stability, strength, and aesthetic appreciation.  The aim of this project was to design and fabricate a building 'kit' to enable the children to safely construct large structures.  The kit itself was required to be portable and could not require a tremendous amount of storage space.

Children exploring building material.

In the Dark:

A common medium for preschool children to explore is light.  The aim of this project was to construct a physical space that would serve as a large dark space or 'room' within a classroom in which children could explore the phenomena of shadow and light.  The space needed to be portable and allow multiple children (and teachers) to use it at the same time.

Children looking at a model of a dark space.

Outdoor Studio Space:

An important space at the CECE is the art studio where children are able to explore multiple artistic media and modes of expression. In the warmer months, there is often a desire to do some of this work outside, and yet there is no good space for doing this.  The CECE is currently going through a new playground redesign, and there will be an area in the new playground space that would be suitable for setting up some form of outdoor art studio.  The goal of this project was to design a series of portable, modular, multipurpose flat surfaces that can provide multiple levels of flat space for art exploration outdoors.

Children using a model of the outdoor

studio space designed by students.

Smith College Picker Engineering Program




Gretchen Schneider

Students enrolled in Gretchen Schneider’s Fall 2005 course, Introduction to Architecture: Site and Space, were involved with a design/build project, A Space of Repose. The students were given of a “budget” of 16 sheets of 30"x40" cardboard per project and in teams of two or three students, designed and built spaces of repose for the playgrounds at Fort Hill. These Spaces of Repose were tested in October and were displayed at the Campus Center and at the Opening Celebration of the new Fort Hill building. The children used the structures for several months and they were featured in an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Department of Art





Nina Antonetti, Landscape Studies

During this special studies, students from four disciplines (studio art, education and child study, engineering and landscape studies) collaborated in the formal design process to benefit the new playgrounds at Fort Hill. Through charrettes and reviews, small groups worked together to design a climbing structure for toddlers; a water feature for infants to preschoolers; and storyboards illustrating and describing the rich history of the site, from Native American fort to silk cocoonery to Lyman family estate.

Students researched the rich history of the site, did precedent analysis, learned safety regulations, learned about the development of the young child, and came to understand the pedagogical implications of the designs.

It was an opportunity for guest lectures given by the participating faculty and visiting professionals. Lectures included the evolution of playground design by Nina Antonetti and Linda Jones on materials and on the structural analysis (loads, etc.) of the playground structures.


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