Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015)
Monday, March 09, 2015
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman
From the Association for the Study of Play --
Brian Sutton-Smith, pioneer in the study of the significance
of Play, died March 7 at the age of 90. The cause is listed as complications
due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Sutton-Smith was one of the foremost play scholars of the
last 100 years. His The Ambiguity of Play (1987) stands alongside
Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) and Roger Caillois’s Man
Play and Games (1961) as a touchstone of play theory. For more than half a
century, Sutton-Smith led or synthesized all the major advancements in play
studies. Sutton-Smith's interdisciplinary approach included research into play
history and cross-cultural studies of play, as well as research
in psychology, education, and folklore. He maintained that the
interpretation of play must involve all of its forms, from child's play to gambling, sports, festivals, imagination, and nonsense.
His collected works, papers, and personal library are a key
element of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at the The
Strong National Museum of play, in Rochester, New York.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1924, Sutton-Smith trained as a
teacher, completed a BA and MA, and was then awarded the first Education PhD
in New Zealand in 1954. Shortly thereafter he was awarded a Fulbright
Scholarship which brought him to the University of California, Berkeley.
Sutton-Smith held professorial positions at Bowling Green State University,
Teacher’s College, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. He
remained Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania until his death.
For combined diversity and magnitude, as well as for impact
on the thinking of others, Sutton-Smith’s body of scholarly work on play is
unparalleled. Sutton-Smith is the author of some 50 books, the most recent of
which was The Ambiguity of Play, and some 350 scholarly articles. In
addition to researching and writing at a feverish pace all his adult life,
Sutton-Smith also lectured throughout the world; participated in making
television films on toys and play in Great Britain, Canada, and the United
States; consulted on a number of children’s television projects
(including Captain Kangaroo, Nickelodeon,
Murdoch Children's Television); participated in numerous scholarly
organizations; helped launch what is now The Association for the Study of Play;
helped establish the Children’s Folklore Society; and secured countless grants
and received numerous citations of recognition, including lifetime achievement
awards from the American Folklore Society and The Association for the Study of
In addition, the New Zealand
Association for Research in Education created the Sutton-Smith
Doctoral Award, which is awarded annually for an excellent Doctoral
thesis by an NZARE member.
Sutton-Smith was also the author of a series of novels about
boys growing up in New Zealand in the 1930s, entitled Our
Street, Smitty Does A Bunk, and The Cobbers. Initially published in
serial form in 1949 in the New Zealand School Journal, the stories provided a
realistic and unexpurgated reminiscence of childhood and created a national furor
as Brian Sutton-Smith allegedly endorsed morally unacceptable behavior in them.
Conservative representatives of local Education Boards and Headmasters’
Associations condemned Sutton-Smith’s depiction of salty language and
rough-and-tumble play in his publications, but members of the Labor Party
praised them for meeting a national need for stories about the country’s
Sutton-Smith is predeceased by his wife Shirley and son
Mark. He is survived by his longtime companion Deborah Thurber, his daughters
Katherine Moyer (Bill), Leslie Sutton-Smith (Mark Blackman), Mary Sutton-Smith
(Warren Tucker), Emily Sutton-Smith (John Lepard), and grandchildren Kelly,
Wendy, Robin, Sally, Brian, Olivia, Madeleine, Milo, Alyssa and Clara. Memorial
services will be announced at a later date.