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Brian Sutton-Smith

Tuesday, March 10, 2015
White River Jct., Vt. — Brian Sutton-Smith, pioneer in the study of the significance of Play, died Saturday, March 7, 2015, at the age of 90 at Brookside Nursing Home. 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 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, N.Y.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1924, 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 and received lifetime achievement awards from the American Folklore Society and The Association for the Study of Play.

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’s 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 children.

Sutton-Smith is predeceased by his wife, Shirley and son, Mark (Joanne). 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.

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