Brian Sutton-Smith (1924–2015) was one of the foremost play scholars of the last 100 years. His The Ambiguity of Play (1997) 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, in more than 350 books and articles, Sutton-Smith led or synthesized all the major advancements in play studies. His collected works, papers, and personal library are a key element of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library & Archives of Play, and they symbolize the import of its holdings.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1924, Sutton-Smith grew up roaming the rugged seaside hills around the small suburban town of Island Bay. He relished rough-and-tumble play (which he called “feverish exploits”), excelled at soccer, and went on to study at Wellington Teachers’ College because it allowed Wednesday afternoons off for sports. Afterward, at nearby Victoria University of Wellington, he gained an introduction to play theory and subsequently began teaching primary school, where he became fascinated by what he called “unorganized games”—physical play unsupervised by adults.
These observations led Sutton-Smith to write juvenile fiction and eventually to undertake graduate study of children’s unorganized games and play. His semi-autobiographical stories, serialized in the New Zealand School Journal in 1949 (and collected 12 years later in Smitty Does a Bunk), and his first book, Our Street, published in 1950, provided a realistic and unexpurgated reminiscence of childhood and sparked lively public debate. 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 Labour Party praised them for meeting a national need for stories about the country’s children.
After producing massive documentation for a dissertation about unorganized games and play in New Zealand, Sutton-Smith secured a Fulbright Scholarship to the United States. En route, he lectured about his work to the British Folklore Society and became a friend of the eminent English folklorist Peter Opie. Once in America, Sutton-Smith reviewed play research at the University of California, Berkeley; explored game studies with sociologist David Reisman and game theory with psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, both at the University of Chicago; and examined child anger with psychiatrist Fritz Redl at Wayne State University.
In 1954, shortly after receiving his PhD in educational psychology from the University of New Zealand, Sutton-Smith immigrated to the United States and embarked upon a long and brilliant academic career with an interdisciplinary focus on children’s and adult games; children’s play, drama, films, and narratives; children’s gender issues and sibling position; and play theory. At Bowling Green University from 1957 to 1967, Sutton-Smith taught psychology and directed programs in developmental psychology and human development. At Teachers College, Columbia University, from 1967 to 1977, he taught developmental psychology. And at the University of Pennsylvania from 1977 to 1990, he taught psychology, education, and folklore.
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. Among his principal publications: The Sibling (1970) moved the study of child development beyond the mother-child relationship and emphasized the importance of brothers and sisters; The Study of Games (1971), Child’s Play (1971), and The Folkgames of Children (1972) all chronicled children’s stories; Play and Learning (1979) gathered psychologists, anthropologists, and physical educators to connect play to cognitive development in children younger than ten; The Folkstories of Children (1981) and A History of Children’s Play (1981) examined the connection of child’s play to the changing political economy of New Zealand; Toys and Culture (1986) examined the history of toys, the role of toys in family life, the technological innovations of toys, and toys in the marketplace; Play and Intervention (1994) argued that adult intervention in child’s play contributed to the growing stresses of childhood; Children’s Folklore Source Book (1995), a collection of essays, examined childhood mischief (songs, riddles, and pranks) and the creative, “phantasmagorical” irrationality of play (rhymes and games) and challenged traditional notions of child development; and The Ambiguity of Play (1997) presented a theoretical examination of the search for the meaning of play in its various “rhetorics.” Today, every new study of play theory draws upon the latter for inspiration, context, or both.
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; 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 Play.
In 2007 Sutton-Smith gave The Strong his personal library of 2,500 play books and 45 bins of research papers accumulated over a career of 50-plus years. Sutton-Smith passed away on March 7, 2015, at the age of 90 in White River Junction, Vermont.
See Sutton-Smith’s autobiographical “Play Theory: A Personal Journey and New Thoughts,” as published in The Strong’s American Journal of Play in 2008.
Play for Life: Play Theory and Play as Emotional Survival, an edited compilation that contains the final book-length manuscript of Brian Sutton-Smith, is now available for purchase online from The Strong museum.