The Ambiguity of Play

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Harvard University Press, Jun 30, 2009 - Education - 288 pages
Every child knows what it means to play, but the rest of us can merely speculate. Is it a kind of adaptation, teaching us skills, inducting us into certain communities? Is it power, pursued in games of prowess? Fate, deployed in games of chance? Daydreaming, enacted in art? Or is it just frivolity? Brian Sutton-Smith, a leading proponent of play theory, considers each possibility as it has been proposed, elaborated, and debated in disciplines from biology, psychology, and education to metaphysics, mathematics, and sociology. Sutton-Smith focuses on play theories rooted in seven distinct rhetorics--the ancient discourses of Fate, Power, Communal Identity, and Frivolity and the modern discourses of Progress, the Imaginary, and the Self. In a sweeping analysis that moves from the question of play in child development to the implications of play for the Western work ethic, he explores the values, historical sources, and interests that have dictated the terms and forms of play put forth in each discourse's objective theory. This work reveals more distinctions and disjunctions than affinities, with one striking exception: however different their descriptions and interpretations of play, each rhetoric reveals a quirkiness, redundancy, and flexibility. In light of this, Sutton-Smith suggests that play might provide a model of the variability that allows for natural selection. As a form of mental feedback, play might nullify the rigidity that sets in after successful adaption, thus reinforcing animal and human variability. Further, he shows how these discourses, despite their differences, might offer the components for a new social science of play.


1 Play and Ambiguity
2 Rhetorics of Animal Progress
3 Rhetorics of Child Play
4 Rhetorics of Fate
5 Rhetorics of Power
6 Rhetorics of Identity
7 Child Power and Identity
8 Rhetorics of the Imaginary
9 Child Phantasmagoria
10 Rhetorics of Self
11 Rhetorics of Frivolity
12 Conclusion

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About the author (2009)

Brian Sutton-Smith was born in Wellington, New Zealand on July 15, 1924. He studied education at Wellington Teachers College. He received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in educational psychology from Victoria University of Wellington. In the late 1940s, he taught at a primary school in a Wellington suburb. In 1952, he traveled to the United States as a Fulbright scholar. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked with the psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Fritz Redl. He received a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of New Zealand in 1954. In 1956, Sutton-Smith moved permanently to the United States. He taught at several universities including Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Columbia University Teachers College, and the University of Pennsylvania. He was a developmental psychologist who was one of the first people to bring the study of play into the academic arena and was considered the field's foremost scholar. His books included Child's Play written with R. E. Herron, The Study of Games written with Elliott M. Avedon, How to Play with Your Children (and When Not To), Toys as Culture, and The Ambiguity of Play. He also wrote three novels for young people. He helped found the Association for the Study of Play and received lifetime achievement awards from that organization and from the American Folklore Society. He died from complications of Alzheimer's disease on March 7, 2015 at the age of 90.

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