Brian Sutton-Smith, Graduate School of Education

brian sutton smith

Brian Sutton-Smith, a lauded developmental psychologist and emeritus professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Penn, died on March 7 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease in a nursing home in White River Junction, Vermont. He was 90 years old.

Dr. Sutton Smith (he adopted the hyphen later in life) was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He studied education at Wellington Teachers College, then earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in educational psychology from Victoria University of Wellington. He came to the US as a Fulbright scholar in 1952 and studied at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his doctorate in educational psychology at the University of New Zealand in 1954.

Dr. Sutton-Smith taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and Columbia University Teacher’s College in New York, then joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1977. He became professor emeritus in 1994. He was GSE’s recipient of the Excellence in Instruction Award for 1988-1989 (Almanac September 5, 1989), given for “contributions to teaching and learning.” He was program head of interdisciplinary studies in human development at GSE, and was also professor of folklore in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. He taught social development and expressive development, aesthetics, play, games, narrative and children’s folklore.

He wrote three young adult novels in the 1940s, and later, approximately 50 books that included Child’s Play (with R. E. Herron, 1971), The Study of Games (with Elliott M. Avedon, 1971), How to Play With Your Children (and When Not To) (with his wife, Shirley, 1974), Toys as Culture (1986) and The Ambiguity of Play (1997).

In 2003 he received a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant to lecture and consult at the Australian Centre of the University of Melbourne and at the Museum Victoria (Almanac March 18, 2003). Dr. Sutton-Smith received lifetime achievement awards from the Association for the Study of Play, which he helped to found, and the American Folklore Society. He was a scholar in residence at the Strong Museum, a national museum of play in Rochester, New York, and his large collection of research materials on play is located there.

Dr. Sutton-Smith is survived by four daughters, Emily, Leslie, Mary and Katherine Moyer; and 10 grandchildren.