World-Renowned Play Scholar Brian Sutton-Smith Passes Away at Age 90

The Strong News Release
One Manhattan Square Rochester, NY 14607 585-263-2700

March 9, 2015

For Immediate Release

Shane Rhinewald, 585-410-6365,

Kim Della Porta, 585-410-6325,

World-Renowned Play Scholar Brian Sutton-Smith
Passes Away at Age 90

Brian Sutton-Smith, widely regarded as one of the foremost play scholars of the last 100 years, passed away Saturday, March 7 at the age of 90 in White River Junction, Vermont. In his lifetime, Sutton-Smith authored dozens of books, his most famous of which is The Ambiguity of Play, and hundreds of articles that together led or synthesized all the major advancements in play studies. He remained Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and Scholar in Residence at The Strong museum in Rochester, New York, until his passing. In 2007, he donated his personal library of books and research materials to The Strong, which renamed its 165,000-volume research library the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play to symbolize the import of its holdings.

Sutton-Smith was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1924, and attended Wellington Teachers’ College. 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.

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 via England, 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 an 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.

“Brian Sutton-Smith had a profound impact on the study of play,” says G. Rollie Adams, president and CEO of The Strong. “For combined diversity and magnitude, together with long-term influence on the thinking of others, Sutton-Smith’s full body of scholarly work on play stands almost in a category by itself.”

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.

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 influentially 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.