Announcements

Philosopher of Fun: Brian Sutton-Smith, 1924-2015 Announcements
Brian Sutton-Smith. (Photo: Strong National Museum of Play)

Philosopher of Fun: Brian Sutton-Smith, 1924-2015

March 17, 2015 1451

Brian Sutton-Smith

Brian Sutton-Smith. The photo is from the Strong National Museum of Play, where Sutton-Smith was a scholar in residence and which holds the archive of his research materials on play.

Brian Sutton-Smith, the world’s foremost scholar of play and philosopher of fun, passed away earlier this month. Among all the New Zealand native’s accolades, what’s maybe most impressive about Sutton-Smith is that he managed to carry out deliberate, careful study of a subject which, by its very nature, resists seriousness. His theories on the evolutionary origin and usefulness of play will continue to influence play researchers.

For the most part, life is pretty serious business. Sutton-Smith found that we could learn a thing or two from children; kids often make light of (and escape from) the adult-run world they inhabit with jokes and stories that push the boundaries their authoritative overlords put in place.

For example, Ink, dink, pen and ink, I smell a great big stink, And it comes from, Y.O.U. is one of the few poems Sutton-Smith singles out from his early work on play, which began in the late 1940s, when he studied unorganized games and play in New Zealand children. He spent three years observing and collecting data on play in primary school children from all over the country, resulting in a 900-page dissertation.

Pacific Standard logo

This article by Kate Wheeling first appeared at our media partner site Pacific Standard under the title “What We Can Learn From Brian Sutton-Smith.” It is reprinted here by permission.

Sutton-Smith received the first educational psychology degree in New Zealand’s history for that research work. That only came, however, once he removed all traces of the racy jokes and poems—per the doctoral committee chairman’s (basically mandatory) request—that he’d heard whispered among the children when the adults were out of earshot. Soon after, when Sutton-Smith became a professor of psychology at Bowling Green University, he made the lewd material that had to be scrubbed from his thesis the subject of new research. He collected hundreds of jokes that grade school students found humorous and adults found disgusting or offensive (Johnny if you don’t stop playing with your little sister I will have to close the casket!).

According to Sutton-Smith, play, like sex, is “a pleasure for its own sake, but its genetic gift is perhaps the sense that life, temporarily at least, is worth living.”

In 1974, Sutton-Smith wrote How to Play With Your Children (and When Not To) with his wife, which provided advice to new parents about how to tease their children during their first year of life, such as tickling, making funny faces, or “hanging the baby upside down by the ankles.” Teasing, Sutton-Smith argued, plays an important role in the socialization of children across many cultures. Simply put, teasing is basically parent-guided play, initiating a child’s experiences with potentially threatening aspects of society (so that when they finally interact with non-family members, they don’t totally freak out). According to Sutton-Smith,”playful parent-child relationships,” and more specifically, the emotional surprises associated with these kinds of teasing, lead to flexible, friendlier, and happier children. In 2008, he wrote:

Children who grow up with early access to this kind of play and who enjoy ludic support for the whimsy of their inner lives are likely to be more sophisticated in their mature social lives and more diplomatically adept in their everyday social relations … All this is particularly true as these worlds of pretend meanings gradually take on the successive personal colorations of make believe, wishful thinking, day dreaming, primary processing, irony, allegories, bathos, parody, euphemism, innuendo, inversion, and various rhetorics. These early subjective pretences serve as a first training for the sophisticated semantics of the social world, its multitude of languages, and its ubiquitous and varied media.

When Sutton-Smith began his unique research, he was essentially the only researcher on the playground, but today his specialty is a widely studied branch of psychology. Looking back on a life dedicated to the study of play, Sutton-Smith once mused that his work may have all been an attempt to convince his mother his own “rough and tumble” play habits growing up in the windswept hills around New Zealand’s Island Bay were normal and formative. “Nice boys are allowed to act quite horribly,” he wrote, “as long as they are playing.”


Kate Wheeling is an editorial fellow at Pacific Standard, which she joined after internships at the American Geophysical Union and Yale Medicine, where she wrote about all things science from heliophysics to human cells. Wheeling has a bachelor’s degree in behavioral neuroscience and a master’s in science journalism.

View all posts by Kate Wheeling

Related Articles

Daniel Kahneman, 1934-2024: The Grandfather of Behavioral Economics
News
March 27, 2024

Daniel Kahneman, 1934-2024: The Grandfather of Behavioral Economics

Read Now
2024 Holberg Prize Goes to Political Theorist Achille Mbembe
News
March 14, 2024

2024 Holberg Prize Goes to Political Theorist Achille Mbembe

Read Now
AAPSS Names Eight as 2024 Fellows
Announcements
March 13, 2024

AAPSS Names Eight as 2024 Fellows

Read Now
Apply for Sage’s 2024 Concept Grants
Announcements
March 7, 2024

Apply for Sage’s 2024 Concept Grants

Read Now
New Feminist Newsletter The Evidence Makes Research on Gender Inequality Widely Accessible

New Feminist Newsletter The Evidence Makes Research on Gender Inequality Widely Accessible

Gloria Media, with support from Sage, has launched The Evidence, a feminist newsletter that covers what you need to know about gender […]

Read Now
Economist Kaye Husbands Fealing to Lead NSF’s Social Science Directorate

Economist Kaye Husbands Fealing to Lead NSF’s Social Science Directorate

Kaye Husbands Fealing, an economist who has done pioneering work in the “science of broadening participation,” has been named the new leader of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

Read Now
Contemporary Politics Focus of March Webinar Series

Contemporary Politics Focus of March Webinar Series

This March, the Sage Politics team launches its first Politics Webinar Week. These webinars are free to access and will be delivered by contemporary politics experts —drawn from Sage’s team of authors and editors— who range from practitioners to instructors.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments