Headshot of Sandra Walker Russ

Retired professor commits $1.5 million to advance research in child psychology

Growing up as an only child, Sandra Walker Russ made the most of her solitary hours. Through role playing, singing, reading and expressing herself artistically, the unstructured playtime she enjoyed in her early developmental years would later serve as the foundation for a career studying the connection between creative development and pretend play.

In turn, Russ’ career and the passion for her work have become the basis for an $1.5 million estate commitment to Case Western Reserve University to continue research in this field.

When realized, Russ’ gift will establish the Sandra Walker Russ, PhD, Assistant Professorship in Child Psychology at the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. The selected faculty member will hold a primary appointment in the Department of Psychological Sciences and lead a research program focusing on child psychology. 

At Case Western Reserve, Russ, a Distinguished University Professor Emerita and the Louis D. Beaumont University Professor Emerita of Psychological Sciences, developed the “Affect in Play Scale” in order to investigate the connection between play and creativity. The measure is widely used in the discipline today and focuses on both emotion and imagination in play.

“Play therapy helps a child to be more open to emotions, more open to their thoughts,” Russ said.  “They learn to put (their thoughts) into a narrative and story, to regulate emotions and open the mind—freeing them to think more flexibly and not be afraid of their ideas.” 

While Russ’ work was influenced by the joy and creative pleasure she derived from the pretend play of her youth, it was the correlation between how children experience play and the impact it has on their developing minds that drove her research and, ultimately, inspired her gift commitment.

“As you start to think about what you want to leave going forward,” Russ reflected, “you ask ‘what will make a difference for the future?’ In psychology, it’s research. And if you’re serious about research, the university is the place to do it. The faculty here is outstanding and the structure is here to help them and push them.”

In addition to her service to the university as a professor, Russ provided leadership in a number of roles including periods as assistant provost, associate provost, two terms as chair of the faculty senate, and two separate appointments as interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She retired earlier this year after 47 years at Case Western Reserve.

“From her groundbreaking research involving children and play, to her profound dedication to preparing graduate students to thrive as scholars, Sandy has made an indelible impact on her field,” said Joy K. Ward, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “With this gift, she has extended her legacy even more, in ways that will benefit those future faculty, research in child psychology and, ultimately, young people themselves. We are truly honored by this commitment.”