Brian Sutton-Smith, a developmental psychologist whose work — prolific, scholarly and precedent-setting — was quite literally child’s play, died on March 7 in White River Junction, Vt. He was 90.
His death, at a nursing home, was from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Emily Sutton-Smith said.
Professor Sutton-Smith was one of the first people to bring the study of play into the academic arena, and for more than half a century he was considered the field’s foremost scholar. He was the author of a spate of books, including “Toys as Culture” (1986) and “The Ambiguity of Play”(1997); a consultant to toy makers and children’s television programs; and a regular presence in the news media, which quoted him on subjects including the inclination of modern-day schools to abolish recess (a trend he deplored) and helicopter parents (ditto).
A resident most recently of Sarasota, Fla., Professor Sutton-Smith was at his death an emeritus professor in the graduate school of education at theUniversity of Pennsylvania. He also had a foot planted in folklore and as a result cast a wide scholarly net, taking in jokes, riddles, stories and street games as well as toys, board games, organized sports, computer gaming and even daydreaming.
Although play has existed since the dawn of mankind, scholars long disdained it as a fit subject for inquiry. But as Professor Sutton-Smith’s work from the 1950s onward showed, there is much to be learned about the human condition from studying play’s cultural wellsprings, developmental trajectory, psychological import and myriad variations.
“Games are rites of passage,” he told The Toronto Star in 1991. “The player performs a task, gains acceptance of his comrades and experiences success. It’s playing out an analogy of life.”
Though Professor Sutton-Smith’s work was concerned in particular with the spontaneous play of children, it also examined the larger forces that underpinned play of all kinds — “what a child’s make-believe, a mother’s crossword puzzles and a father’s endless rounds of golf” might have in common, as he wrote in a 2008 article.
Throughout his career, he sought to answer a set of fundamental questions: What is play? Why do human beings engage in it? What psychological, cognitive and cultural functions does it serve?
The answer, he concluded after six decades of study, was one that befit his quicksilver quarry: No single definition could contain it.
“Something about the nature of play itself frustrates fixed meaning,” Professor Sutton-Smith wrote in 2008. “Just as some scholars spend their lives consumed by the metaphysics of literature or history or philosophy or theology — you name it — I came to spend mine in search of the metaphysics of play.”
Brian Sutton Smith was born, without a hyphen to his name, in Wellington, New Zealand, on July 15, 1924. His father, Ernest James Smith, was Wellington’s chief postmaster. Because there were several Brian Smiths in his neighborhood, Brian was known from an early age by his full name; as an adult he reinforced its solidity by adding the hyphen.
As a youth, he studied education at Wellington Teachers College. (Mindful even then of the human hunger for play, he chose the school because it gave pupils Wednesday afternoons off for sports.) He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Victoria University of Wellington, followed by a master’s in educational psychology there. In the late 1940s he taught at a primary school in a Wellington suburb.
Traveling to the United States as a Fulbright scholar in 1952, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked elsewhere with the psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Fritz Redl. Returning home, he completed a 900-page dissertation on the play of New Zealand children and received a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of New Zealand in 1954.
In 1956, Professor Sutton-Smith moved permanently to the United States. He taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and Columbia University Teachers College before joining the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1977.
His years as a schoolteacher also gave rise to three novels for young people, written for his pupils and rooted in his own rough-and-tumble childhood. As he realized, few works of fiction reflected the experiences of New Zealand’s children, who were weaned on a literary diet of British imports, many with a lingering Victorian flavor.
In the late 1940s, when Professor Sutton-Smith’s novels first appeared in serialized form, they caused a furor among New Zealand parents, educators and public officials. At issue was their generous use of slang and vivid depictions of street life. (Children adored the books, published in full as “Our Street,” “Smitty Does a Bunk” and “The Cobbers.”)
“The major effect the fuss had on me, perhaps,” Professor Sutton-Smith wrote in 2008, “was that I came to spend the rest of my scholarly life defensively.”
He was called on to defend himself again in the mid-1970s, when a federal judge enjoined the sale of “Child Psychology,” a 1973 textbook offered by Prentice-Hall. The book had been written by a team of ghostwriters, with Professor Sutton-Smith as its named author, a practice not unknown among textbook publishers of the period.
In a case that received significant coverage in the news media, Harper & Row, which had published a competing textbook, “Child Development and Personality” (written by Paul Henry Mussen, John Janeway Conger and Jerome Kagan and first issued in 1956), contended that some 400 passages in Professor Sutton-Smith’s book closely resembled parts of theirs.
While court documents indicate that Professor Sutton-Smith was uninvolved in writing his book’s first draft — and that he had warned his publisher against following the Harper & Row book too closely — the court held that “Child Psychology” infringed on the earlier book’s copyright and permanently barred its sale.
Professor Sutton-Smith’s wife, the former Shirley L. Hicks, died in 2002; a son, Mark, died in 2013. Besides his daughter Emily, his survivors include his companion, Deborah Thurber; three other daughters, Katherine Moyer, Leslie Sutton-Smith and Mary Sutton-Smith; and 10 grandchildren.
His other books include “Child’s Play” (1971, with R. E. Herron), “The Study of Games” (1971, with Elliott M. Avedon) and “How to Play With Your Children (and When Not To),” a parenting guide written with his wife, published in 1974.
Professor Sutton-Smith, who helped found what is now the Association for the Study of Play, received lifetime achievement awards from that organization and from the American Folklore Society. His vast archive of research materials on play is now part of the Strong Museum, a national museum of play in Rochester, where he was a scholar in residence.
Despite the academic respectability he had almost single-handedly conferred on play, interviewers persisted in asking Professor Sutton-Smith why he spent his life on the subject.
“Why do we study play?” he replied on one occasion. “We study play because life is crap. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”