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What We Can Learn From Brian Sutton-Smith

Remembering the great lessons from the late psychologist.
Brian Sutton-Smith. (Photo: Strong National Museum of Play)

Brian Sutton-Smith. (Photo: Strong National Museum of 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.

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.

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 [sic.] 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 speciality 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."

*UPDATE — March 17, 2015: We originally wrote that Brian Sutton-Smith passed away last week, when he in fact passed away earlier this month. His obituary was published last week.