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AFS Review: In Memoriam

Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015)

Saturday, March 7, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Elizabeth Tucker (Binghamton University) — 

Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the leading scholars of play studies for more than half a century, passed away in March at the age of 90. From his active childhood to his highly productive career and retirement, Brian took play very seriously. After identifying the “triviality barrier” that keeps adults from noticing children’s play, he put a huge amount of energy into breaking that barrier down. Like the anthropologist Margaret Mead, he achieved a remarkable degree of success in reaching both the public and scholars across the disciplines: folklorists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others. Brian’s numerous books include The Folkstories of Children (1981), Toys as Culture (1986) and The Ambiguity of Play (1997). One of his greatest contributions to the American Folklore Society was founding the Children’s Folklore Section, which continues to thrive today. He was also an extremely kind, generous colleague whose sheer exuberance made interdisciplinary play studies great fun. Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1924, Brian first learned about folklore from his father, a postmaster who was also a storyteller. Brian enjoyed stories but liked sports and games best; he chose to attend Wellington Teachers College because it gave students Wednesday afternoons off for athletics. Later, working on his doctorate at the University of New Zealand, he set off on a strenuous two-year journey to collect games from schoolchildren. Sleeping in his car and on couches during his travels, he worked tirelessly to record children’s games. Brian’s distinguished teaching career began at Bowling Green State University, continued at Columbia, and culminated at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he was not one of my professors, he taught me important lessons about play theory, childlore, teaching, and mentoring. “This is good!” he told me after reading one of my early papers on children’s folklore. He inspired me to delve deeply into the kinds of play I wanted to explore, including levitation rituals and choking games. Not everyone wanted to hear about that kind of dark play, but Brian did, and he supported my eagerness to learn more. Some of Brian’s most far-reaching thinking was about play’s role in the natural selection process of evolution. Play, he suggested, creates a kind of quirkiness and variation that facilitates natural selection. It also makes life better, more tolerable, and more fun. Let’s honor Brian’s memory by keeping play studies strong and continuing to play as much as we can.

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