Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My daughter spent much of this week with a deer skeleton she found in the woods.
As she searched the site she was thrilled to find most bones intact. My only involvement was providing toothbrushes and bleach to clean them.
Today she’s reassembling the skeleton in the driveway. She shows me how the back legs fit into the hip sockets, giving the deer power to leap and run while the front legs are mostly held on by bone and connective tissue.
She points out that the spine is somewhat similar to a human spine in the lower thoracic and upper lumbar regions, but very different where the large cervical vertebrae come in.
I know so little about this topic that I forget what she’s telling me while she speaks.
Handling the bones carefully, she faithfully reconstructs the skeleton. She’s so deeply engrossed in the project that she hasn’t come in for lunch or bothered to put on a jacket to ward off the chill.
Her interests are far different than mine, but I know what it’s like to be this captivated.
You know the feeling too. You become so absorbed in something that time scurries by without your notice. Your whole being is engrossed by the project. You feel invigorated.
Skiers call it becoming “one with the mountain.” Athletes call it being in the “zone.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed it the “state of flow.”
In this marvelous state the boundaries between you and your experience seem fluid, as if you are merging with what you’re doing. The more opportunities any of us have to immerse ourselves in activities we love, especially those that stretch us to our full capacities, the more capable and centered we feel in other areas of our lives.
Children, especially the youngest ones, slide into flow effortlessly. While playing they concentrate so fully that they lose sense of themselves, of time, even of discomfort. They’re inherently drawn to full-on engagement. As Csikszentmihalyi explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Kids demonstrate flow when they’re eagerly drawing, building, climbing, pretending, reading, exploring—-however rapt involvement captures them. Their intent focus makes a mockery of what is supposedly a child’s developmental handicap — a short attention span.
Flow truly puts a person in the moment. No wonder it can be hard for our kids when we call them away from what they’re doing to what we deem more important. No wonder they might be more enthusiastic about playing with Legos than taking part in a structured geometry lesson.
Imposing too many of our grown-up preoccupations on kids can teach them to block the experience of flow.
What do we need to remember about this state?
Flow is typically triggered:
- when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
- during a self-chosen pursuit
- when they are looking to accomplish something worthwhile to them.
These characteristics are also the way we’re primed to learn from infancy on. It’s been called the Goldilocks Effect. This means we are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for us. Not too big a challenge, not too little, but something that sparks our interest and holds it close to the edge of our abilities, moving us toward greater mastery.
That’s pretty much the way science, art, and other major human endeavors happen too. Flow may indeed be our natural state.
How do we encourage flow?
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some ways to allow more flow in your kids’ lives (and yours too!).
- Foster a calm, relaxed environment.
- Engage in what brings out delighted fascination. If you’re not sure what that is, fool around with something hands-on. Tinker, paint, write, sculpt with clay, take something apart, dance, experiment—-whatever feels enticing.
- Let go of worry and pressure.
- Welcome mistakes as well as challenges.
- As much as possible, don’t interrupt.
- Remember that flow isn’t really separate from play.
The outcome of flow?
- Deepened learning and stronger confidence.
- A drive toward complexity, luring us to increase challenges, broaden our range of abilities, even face anxiety and boredom as we access an ever more profound state of engagement. (As A Playful Path author Bernie DeKoven explains here.)
- Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work tells us achieving the flow state regularly is a key component of happiness.
That’s vital, even if it means you end up with a deer skeleton in your driveway.
Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning