Writing, Creativity, Suffering

Somehow I hadn’t read Kaye Gibbons’ 2005 novel, Charms for the Easy Life, until recently. It’s a delight to open a book and, within a few pages, realize it’s going to be a good read. The novel follows the life of a girlchild raised within a circle of intensely vibrant women. Each character is so memorable that the plot almost seems secondary.

I often turn to the inside of a book’s back cover to look at the author’s photo. That’s what I did several times recently while reading Tiffany McDaniel’s gorgeously written Summer That Melted Everything and again while reading Brian Broome’s powerfully unique memoir Punch Me Up To The Gods. Somehow it helps to see the author is an actual person inhabiting a mortal body. For me it increases the magic of words they simmer into meaning.

My library copy didn’t show Kaye Gibbon’s photo, so I casually clicked over to the interwebs. There I saw an array of images that moved from a charmingly innocent author photo to a devastating booking photo. I was gutted to learn that Ms. Gibbon suffered a traumatic childhood as well as mental health difficulties, with concomitant substance issues. The chapters I read afterwards were imbued with more meaning in light of her struggles.

It brought to mind the challenges many of my writer, artist, and musician friends have endured. And some of my challenges as well.

What is it about creative pursuits and suffering?

A few years ago I wrote an article about how creative gifts in young people are often labeled as defiance, dyslexia, and other “disorders.” I quoted Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora’s piece, “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” in which they explain gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. Young people may be subjected to all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

Is there a link between creative professions and conditions like anxiety, depression, and compulsions? Some research seems to indicate that’s the case.  

One study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants from the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields. Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness. This is intriguing, but such a small study can’t be seen as definitive.

A large-scale Swedish study followed 1.2 million people and their relatives. The research was so extensive that it incorporated much of the Swedish population. It concluded that a higher prevalence of people with bipolar disorder were working in creative fields. Again, there were limitations to the study. In large part that had to do with how the data was collected. Researchers compared medical records to occupations, deciding, for example that people working as accountants and auditors worked in “uncreative” fields while a broad range of people were assumed to be creative if they worked as university instructors, visual artists, photographers, designers, performing artists, composers, musicians, or authors. Using expanded criteria, the study found one creative field most closely associated with mental health issues — authors. The study’s abstract notes, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.” 

Then there’s James C. Kaufman’s analysis, “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers” published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. He discussed a study of 1,629 writers which found female poets were significantly more likely to experience mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any genre. Another study he included looked at 520 eminent women. They were poets, fiction as well as nonfiction writers, visual artists, actresses, and politicians. (Politicians?) It was found that poets were most likely to experience mental illness.  

But Keith Sawyer’s book, Explaining Creativity, disputes many of these findings. Dr. Sawyer asserts that there is no link between creativity and mental illness. As he notes in a blog post,  

If you’re a creative person, the good news is that there is lots of research showing that creativity is connected to normal mental functioning and elevated mental health. Much of creativity involves working with existing conventions and languages; you can’t make up your own separate universe. Creative success requires networking and interacting with support networks, and this requires social skill and political savvy. And creativity is mostly conscious hard work, not a sudden moment of insight; getting the work done takes a highly effective person. Many psychologists have demonstrated that when people engage in creative work, they attain a state of peak experience, sometimes called “flow,” that represents the pinnacle of effective human performance. Creativity is related to higher-than-average mental health–just the opposite of our belief in a connection between creativity and mental illness.

I’m convinced we have to look at the myriad ways creativity is suppressed in our culture, starting in early childhood. Time spent in free play has declined precipitously, replaced by structured, supervised activities which supplant a child’s natural curiosity-driven, inventive, and ever-fluid play. Young people have less time and freedom to play with loose parts — the sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks that have inspired children’s imaginations for eons. Even in toddlerhood, intrinsic motivation can be diminished by external motivators like rewards and praise. Despite the best efforts of caring educators, schools have been severely hampered by structural racism, by assignments that emphasize narrow thinking, and by test-laden curricula. Even the education of gifted children is seriously compromised. We seem to forget that differences and eccentricities are often how our species flourishes.

Creativity is typically seen as the nearly exclusive province of the artistic few, yet we demonstrate creativity all the time as we riff on recipes, interact playfully, solve problems, collaborate on projects, tell our stories, forge new relationships, and grow from past mistakes. Creativity is not a rare gift, but a characteristic human trait. It’s so characteristic that most young children are, according to some scientists, creative geniuses.

Back in the late sixties, NASA was looking for a way to select for the most creative scientists and engineers. George Land and Beth Jarman created a creativity test to identify those who were best able to come up with new and innovative ways to solve problems. It worked remarkably well. Land and Jarman, as they explain in Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, used the same basic test on 1,600 three-to-five year old children enrolled in Head Start. They were shocked to discover a full 98 percent of children age five and under tested at genius level. They managed to get funding to test these children over time. Dishearteningly, only 30 percent of 10-year-olds scored at the creative genius level. That number dropped to 12 percent at 15 years of age. They expanded the scope of their research, giving the test to 280,000 adults with an average age of 31. Only two percent were, according to the results, creative geniuses.

George Land attributes the slide in creativity to schooling. When it comes to creativity, we use two forms of mental processes. Convergent thinking is necessary for judging and critiquing ideas, in order to refine and improve them. This is a fully conscious process. Divergent thinking is more freeform and imaginative, resulting in innovative ideas that may need refining. This process is more like daydreaming. Land suggests many school assignments require children to use both processes at once, which is nearly impossible, resulting in predominantly convergent thinking. We are taught, unintentionally, to turn off our creativity. Now that is painful. In my view, creativity is the essence of who we are. If anything, it isn’t connected to pain, but to healing.

I’m glad to turn to poets for their perspectives on writing, creativity, and pain.

“Poems have to make our lives clear. Poems have to make our lives real on the page. And nobody’s living an easy life. Nobody’s living a life that is anything other than complex. And there are things about our lives that TV’s not going to give us, that movies, even, are not going to give us. And poems are where I go for that. That’s where I go for the complexity, the thing in us that we don’t really understand.”  ~Jericho Brown (from On Being interview)      

“There’s a reason poets often say, ‘Poetry saved my life,’ for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering, the only one registering the story completely, the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes    

“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.” ~Joy Harjo

Clonk

“I could see why Archimedes got all excited. There was nothing finer than the feeling that came rushing through you when it clicked and you suddenly understood something that had puzzled you. It made you think it just might be possible to get a handle on this old world after all.”   ~Jeannette Walls 

I took Spanish language classes from seventh to ninth grade. Whatever I learned is largely lost. Lost too are higher level math and chemistry lessons. But for some reason I can remember the theme song from Gilligan’s Island reruns and the show’s one-note characters trotting through formulaic episodes.

Lately I find myself thinking about the show’s recurring plot device, that of being hit on the head by a falling coconut. This was a fix for nearly anything. The professor is stumped while theorizing. He walks under a coconut tree. CLONK, he can suddenly solve mysteries of the universe. Mary Ann is worried that she isn’t pretty enough until, CLONK, she thinks she’s got movie star glamour. I seem to recall Gilligan was clonked most often.

Even on a show as silly as this one, being hit by a coconut was surely a metaphor for being knocked well beyond preconceived ideas and limiting beliefs. 

If a clonk on the head with a coconut could dispel my problems I’d line up for a whap. And if the people I love asked, I’d cure their worst troubles with a coconut whap too. This contradicts what I’m beginning to understand about the powerful lessons embedded in mistakes and suffering. But as I get older I get more impatient. The coconut option just seems a hell of a lot easier.

I imagine ridiculous, Gilligan’s Island-worthy scenarios where a mass coconut drop on our country erases racism, sexism, inequality, greed, heck, all our major problems. I imagine us rubbing our heads with peaceful, bemused expressions as we gather up the coconuts and make each other inventive, delicious meals out of all that bounty.

Until I remember, on Gilligan’s Island, whatever problems were solved by a sudden coconut hit were always cancelled out by an inevitable follow-up coconut hit. The professor forgets his brilliant insight, Mary Ann again judges her looks by impossible standards, Gilligan transforms back into a clueless underling. Getting that second hit is pretty much what happens to most of us when epiphanies slide from memory, when awe fades, when the weight of consumer culture drags us back into ruts.  

I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered a lot of falling coconuts. Maybe the lesson is to look up.

Mutual Aid In The Time Of Covid-19

“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up.”    ~Naomi Klein     

Last night, after reading frightening coverage about this country’s abysmal preparation for Covid-19, with potential death tolls estimated to reach 1 to 1.5 million Americans, I dreamed about a family member just outside my window who couldn’t hear or see me calling him. Even in my dream I wondered which one of us wasn’t alive. I also dreamed about rotting food that grew into a malevolent presence. (And I dreamed about pastel-colored baby llamas…)

I woke up to cancel and respond to cancellation notices for all sorts of workshops, events, and get-togethers. Tentatively my classes for April are still a go-status, but I realize that may change. So much is changing.

Like nearly everyone else, I’m taking in more news than I normally do. I’ve heard experts say this pandemic is the event of a century. I’ve heard experts say this will be generation-defining. And of course there are people like conservative columnist David Brooks whose piece in the NYT is titled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” with the subtitle “You may not like who you’re about to become.”  He writes about the ugly history of epidemics, where people blame and refuse to help one another. Of course there aren’t many accounts of how neighbors and faith communities actually helped one another in those times; history rarely tracks the experiences of ordinary people. Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, describes how ordinary people DO react. Here’s part of my post about this.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary.

People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Solnit wasn’t writing specifically about global pandemics, but already this greater human spirit is happening all around us. In my own networks I know of:

  • employees offering to handle a heavier workload so that co-workers with health problems can stay at home
  • healthcare workers taking on more shifts to deal with a massively increased workload
  • families looking after other people’s children due to school and daycare closures
  • nursing mothers vowing to share breastmilk if fellow mothers are too sick to nurse
  • neighbors offering to do errands and yard chores for elderly and/or sick neighbors
  • faith communities matching volunteers with people requesting help

And community members are getting together online to organize all sorts of mutual aid well beyond their own close networks. Here’s what my friend Mark, activist and generally awesome person, posted yesterday.

And here’s an example from an apartment dweller:

The next few months will likely test us, maybe test us severely.  Through whatever we suffer, this pandemic may help us see we are interconnected beyond our own fingertips, beyond our own borders.  May we rise to our best selves, creative and caring, no matter what. May we keep up one another’s spirits as the people of  Siena, Italy do — singing from their homes and apartments during the mandated quarantine. 

 “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”   ~Howard Zinn

A Different Kind of Genius: Standardized Learning vs Beautiful Diversity

What society seems to favor in young people — obedience, popularity, good school behavior, robust mental health, plus good grades and test scores — doesn’t necessarily build on their inborn strengths. In fact the very things we define as problems are vital aspects of human diversity. Suppressing them hinders a young person’s full development into who they are.

Here’s some of the science behind kids who go their own way.

image: youtube

Eleven-year-old Bill was defiant and got into heated shouting matches with his parents. By the time he was 12 years old, things had gotten so bad he was in counseling for his behavior. He told his counselor, “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control.”

Plenty of us broke the rules growing up and didn’t go on to earn billions as Bill Gates did, but there may be something to defiance. In 2008, researchers got in touch with nearly 750 participants from a 1968 study. In the original study these participants had been sixth graders who’d had their intelligence, attitudes, and behavior assessed. Now the participants were in their 50’s. The researchers looked for personality traits correlated with success. They controlled for IQ, household income, level of education, and other factors. They found one particular childhood characteristic predictive of those who went on to become high achievers in adulthood — rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.

Other studies amplify these findings, showing that teens who were truant from school, who cheated, shoplifted, or displayed other anti-social behaviors (although not serious crimes) were more likely to go on to found their own companies.

We don’t know for sure why there’s such a strong correlation between youthful defiance and adult success, but it we do know traits that make strong-willed kids seem “difficult” — things like persistence, non-conformity, boldness, confidence, intense interests, and independence- —  are the same traits that in adulthood characterize leaders in business, governance, athletics, and entertainment. Strong-willed kids want to find out for themselves rather than be told, and this not only helps them resist peer pressure, it can help them think beyond conventional thinking to new ways of doing things. Like Bill Gates.

image: YouTube

Stefani wasn’t popular. According to the book Doable, she was teased, called “ugly” and “weird,” and could barely face going to school. Stefani was so desperate to transform herself from a “voluptuous little Italian girl” to a “skinny little ballerina” that she became bulimic in high school, stopping only when her vocal chords started to become damaged.

Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Unpopularity doesn’t mean we’re likely to top the charts in 20 countries, but popular kids with loads of friends aren’t actually happier than those with just a single really close friend. Kids with larger, less intimate social networks worry, even obsess about their status, influence, and power. Instead of having close relationships, they often have many people to manage. Popularity, especially in girls’ high pressure online lives, can feel more like managing one’s self-image than being truly known to one’s friends. Studies indicate kids with few, but close friends, even one best friend, grow up to have less depression, less anxiety, and higher self-worth.

How popularity may be gained is another concern. Research shows teens (especially young teens) often try to look and act more mature than they are in order to gain peer approval, what researchers call pseudomature behavior. This can include early use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, sex, and late partying. This often works short-term to boost their popularity. Long-term pseudomature behavior is linked to a greater likelihood of serious problems in adulthood including difficulties with close relationships, substance abuse issues, and criminal behavior. And overall, it turns out those who aren’t the “cool” kids in school are more likely to be personally and professionally competent as adults.

image: Erik van Leeuwen

Michelle was a handful in grade school. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn,” she says. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Although she still struggled, she learned to work harder and work differently. Michelle Carter is now an Olympic champion holding the American record in women’s shot put.

Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, says there’s a strong connection between dyslexia and success. Although fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to have the disorder, a study found more than a third of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. It’s thought struggling to get by in a reading world helps people develop skills like problem-solving and perseverance. It also gives them experience with failure early on, teaching them to take more calculated risks and see opportunities where others don’t.

Dyslexics may have other strengths as well. Dr. Gail Saltz, author of The Power of Different, explains in a CNN interview that there’s a good probability people with dyslexia are more likely to have an enhanced aptitude for visual-spatial relations. “It has to do with the wiring that makes it difficult for (a person) to read and do things in a very particular way. That same wiring permits a certain kind of ability in (a person’s) peripheral vision and processing and visual-spatial processing and pattern recognition.”

Many studies have found a link between dyslexia and creativity. Comparing scores on Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) between young students with dyslexia to those of normative TTCT samples indicated children with dyslexia were significantly better at generating many ideas and more original ideas.

Comparing scores on the WCR (widening, connecting and reorganizing) Creativity Test between middle school students with and without dyslexia showed students with dyslexia were better able to carry out unusual combinations of ideas. (What researchers strangely called “the peculiar cognitive functioning of people with learning disabilities.”)

And after years of seeing an association between dyslexia and remarkable artistic creativity, a school of art and design funded research to study the link. Admission to the school was extremely demanding, meaning student vocation choice relied on talent and not compensation for failure in conventional academics. Lead researcher Beverley Steffart found the student body intellectually at the top 10 percent of the population, yet three-quarters of students overall were found to have some form of dyslexia. In an interview with the Independent she said, “My research so far seems to show that there does seem to be a `trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” “

Thomas G. West points out in his book In The Mind’s Eye that dyslexic people often have the gift of thinking in three dimensions, easily able to rotate an image in their minds or visualize every detail of a completed project. He write, “historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relieved heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory.” He notes such early learning difficulties plagued Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo da Vinci, William James, William Butler Yeats, and many others. “Many of these individuals may have achieved success or even greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent disabilities. They may have been so much in touch with their visual-spatial, nonverbal, right-hemisphere modes of thought that they have had difficulty in doing orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks in a culture where left-hemisphere capabilities are so highly valued.”

image: Britannica.com

At 14, David was bored and reclusive. He spent most of his free time in his bedroom on the computer. His mother, a science teacher, didn’t push him to pay more attention to his classes at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead she suggested he drop out to homeschool so he could learn what he wanted to learn. After that, David didn’t pursue traditional academic subjects or go on to college. By the time he was 17 he was living alone in Tokyo, writing software, and providing tech help for a parenting blog.

He didn’t like writing as much as the blog required, so when he had a two-week gap in contracts he worked with a friend to set up a tumblelogging platform. In 2013, David Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for 1.1 billion. Many of us homeschool and haven’t come up with a lucrative innovation, but we do know the emphasis on high grades and test scores isn’t a formula for success.

As education reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Research also links higher grade point averages to less innovative or creative work overall. What’s being tested is has so little to do with the adaptable, creative, critical thinking necessary for today’s world that employers like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America don’t emphasize grades, test scores, even college degrees the most important criteria in the hiring process.  Actually, studies show that high test scores in school don’t necessarily predict any of several hundred measures of adult maturity and competence. Increasing test scores, however, were found to be directly related to interpersonal immaturity.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?” The conclusion? Not really. Grades and test scores only do a good job of forecasting a student’s future grades and scores. They do not necessarily correlate with later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. And they are not good predictors of success in career advancement, handling real life problems, or maintaining positive relationships.

That’s true in other parts of the world as well. Students in China who achieve the highest scores on college entrance exams have been found to achieve less in life after school than those who scored lower. All this test pressure, to decrease a child’s chances of success!

 

 

image: Britannica.com

Another boy named David struggled with anxiety and compulsions. His repertoire of tics included rocking, counting his steps, and hitting himself on the head. Teachers were particularly frustrated by his urge to lick light switches. David was also witty and a close observer of people. He dropped out of college, did odd jobs, and dabbled in art throughout his 20’s, finally finishing an art degree in his early 30’s. When he was invited to read one of his humorous essays on NPR, David Sedaris’ career took off. He’s now the author of nine bestselling books and his speaking tours sell out each time he travels.

In an article titled “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora explain that gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood and mislabeled by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. They may try all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

As Ms. Azpeitia and Ms. Rocamora go on to explain, “For the gifted, inner conflict is a developmental rather than a degenerative sign, because it drives the gifted person forward to replace current ways of thinking and being with those of higher level development. This type of positive disintegration is characterized by an intensified inner tension between what one is and what one could be. This dynamic tension is what fuels the creative person’s complex inner life and provides the impetus for growth and development.”

All sorts of studies have found links between creativity and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and compulsions. One such study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants in the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields.  Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness.

According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain, creative people are often skeptical of authority and prefer to make up their own minds. They are more drawn to questions than answers, and may find rituals help them cope with ambiguity. Feelings of alienation, fear, and depression are common and can themselves drive even greater creativity.

We talking about a different kind of genius.

Mathematician Eric Weinstein says conventional educational gets in the way of genius. Genius is associated with high-variance, and such variance is often found in people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other differences. Dr. Weinstein says they aren’t suited to conventional educational systems, and explains,

“If you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society… These are the individuals who are going to cure cancer. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries… How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?”

Standardized expectations don’t allow us to see that our differences are a necessary part of who we are. That isn’t to minimize the difficulties people experience as they struggle to grow up and find their way, but it can help us to accept each person as a unique constellation of traits, abilities, and inclinations. Instead of emphasizing what we perceive as a young person’s weaknesses, we can build on their strengths. Instead of forcing them to “make up” for what we think they’re missing we can let them explore what enchants them. Instead of insisting on one narrow path to adult success we can throw the definition of success open to what each person makes of it.

Benevolent Childhood Experiences

Back in my social worker days, I served as support group facilitator for adults who were abused as children. Participants ranged from early 20’s to late 60’s, each one haunted by neglect or abuse in their formative years, each one dealing with the after effects. We sat together week after week in a circle of folding chairs while people explored confusion, loss, despair, pain, vulnerability, fear, anger. We talked about what it took them to shape a life beyond early suffering. The stories told there  will stay with me forever.

We also explored stories of when they felt supported or understood.  One man remembered a coach who put a hand on his shoulder. The sensation of an adult’s hand touching him without malice was so unfamiliar that the man, as a boy, had trouble concentrating on his coach’s words. When he did, he realized the coach was saying something kind. This happened one time, and yet the man cherished the memory for decades. He said he could still summon the feeling of that hand on his shoulder. Other people talked about teachers who noticed something special about them.  They talked about a friend’s mother who would let them stay for supper or join in on family outings, about an aunt who would hug them, about neighbors who let them stick around, about grandparents who took them in when things got out of control at home.

These seem like small gestures, the sort of kindnesses adults should quite naturally extend to young people, although some in our group could recall only one or two such instances. Yet these memories sustained them for decades. Many people spoke of intentionally recalling these memories to shore up their spirits, break self-destructive habits, even keep from attempting suicide. That coach, that friend’s mother had no idea what light they’d lit in another life.

We know chronic stress or traumatic events in childhood have cumulative long-term effects on the mind and body.  The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the greater the damage is likely to be.  But that support group taught me more than I expected about Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs). One group of researchers refers to these experiences as “angels in the nursery” serving as “protective factors that buffer adolescents, adults, and parents with histories of adversity.”

Here’s a glimpse of questions on the BCE scale currently in use.

Did you have at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe?
Did you have at least one good friend?
Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort?
Did you like school?
Did you have at least one teacher who cared about you?
Did you have good neighbors?
Was there an adult (not a parent/caregiver or the person from #1) who could provide you with support or advice?
Did you have opportunities to have a good time?
Did you like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself?
Did you have a predictable home routine, like regular meals and a regular bedtime?

I’d argue these questions are simultaneously too broad and too limited. Still, studies based on the scale show young people with caring adults in their lives are less likely to suffer the physical and mental health ravages of ACEs. In fact, “favorable childhood experiences may counteract long-term effects of childhood adversity.

Perhaps a scale of beneficial experiences helps to reinforce that each child needs and deserves consistent, committed, caring adults in their lives. It can help us remember to BE that benevolent person to children in our lives, even those we might know only briefly.  And it helps to remind us of benevolent adults in our own formative years.

Who in your childhood and teen years made you feel safe, worthy, understood?

Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. A significant way to encourage this is the freedom to play with loose parts.

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

Teaching a Squirrel to do Tricks, Almost

happiness is process not outcome

No squirrels were harmed in this post. Image by easterngraysquirrel.deviantart.com

Eric* and I knew we could teach a squirrel to do tricks.

First, get it to eat food we’d thrown.

Then, get it to eat from our hands.

Next, train it to come when called.

Ultimately, get it to wear a costume and ride a squirrel-sized bicycle.

We talked about this at length, interrupting each other eagerly as new thoughts occurred to us. I was so thrilled at the prospect that my spine seemed to jingle with sparks.

Eric and I didn’t normally play together. We didn’t normally speak to each other. Boys and girls almost never hung out together in my neighborhood, and besides, he was going into fourth grade that fall while I’d only be a third-grader.

But Eric and I were united by a vision. Sitting in his front lawn, grass bristling against our legs, we bragged about how much animals liked us. Eric said he could whistle and a bird would land on his arm. He didn’t offer to demonstrate that skill right then. I implied I was some kind of mystic who could hear animals talk to each other. I was pretty sure I could hear that squirrel, sitting on its haunches in a nearby tree, practically begging us to be its friend.

All our efforts to lure it closer failed, so we reluctantly decided to build a squirrel trap. Not that we were the trapping sort of kids, but we’d make it up to the squirrel once we’d captured him.

Enthralled, we didn’t pay any attention to the likelihood of our vision becoming a reality. The moment was everything. We were in the powerful state of flow. You know what this feels like — invigorating, enlivening, wholly absorbing.

Process actually has more to do with our happiness than outcome, according to some psychologists. Maybe this is what happens when highly successful people don’t appear all that blissful once they’ve gotten to the top of their fields. Celebrities, sports figures, and others sometimes reach what seems to be the pinnacle of wealth and status only to self-destruct. Eric and I weren’t likely to reach the pinnacle of squirrel training, but we didn’t care.

We rustled up some scrap wood, a hammer, and nails. Squatting on a driveway too hot to sit on, we tried to transform small and oddly shaped plywood pieces into the trap of our dreams. When that failed we simply tried to build some kind of 3-D shape. We failed, failed again, failed a few more times, then resorted to something else. A cardboard box.

This material was easier to handle but not easy enough. The dull mat knife we were allowed to use barely sawed through the cardboard. Our attempts at making a door we could shut from a distance gave us several quite painful rubber band-related injuries. We slowed down as we realized our grand plans might not be workable. Not because it wasn’t a great idea, we agreed, but due to our construction skill deficits.

Both of us still loved the vision of that squirrel becoming our friend. Even if he didn’t wear a costume and learn to ride a squirrel-sized bicycle, we were happy there in the driveway where we’d realized magic was just a little too hard for us to build right then. There was awkward silence.

Thankfully, two bigger boys rode by on their bikes and mocked Eric for playing with a girl. Relieved, we took this as an excuse to go our separate ways, completely satisfied with our attempts. That squirrel never knew how close it was to fame.

 

*Name changed just in case Eric is now a squirrel whisperer.

Most Of Us Are Ugly Ducklings

Our early hatching is lauded, our late hatching a reason for worry.

We’re expected from our earliest years be like the other ducklings. (Well, better than others but not stuck up about it.)

If we keep flying when it’s time to swim there’s medication to calm our out-of-bounds impulses. If we like to sing but can’t quack there’s a star chart to reinforce more appropriate sounds.

We’re graded on the dexterity we demonstrate when curling our beaks under our wings at nap time, tested on our ability to dip our heads under water, judged by our willingness to stay in line. Poor results means doing these things over and over again until we thoroughly detest ourselves for not measuring up.

When we don’t do as well as expected we’re told we just need to try harder to be the very best duckling we can be. We’re told that we aren’t living up to our potential. We’re told we need to get our priorities straight (or a growth mindset, or grit, or an attitude adjustment).

Ducklings from more affluent families might be enrolled in perfect-your-waddle coaching camps. Their preening may be assisted and their diets enhanced with imported bugs. Less fortunate ducklings may just get some quack tutoring.

When we’re still not like other ducklings most of us try even harder to be normal. Remember those reindeer who wouldn’t let someone different play their reindeer games? Yeah, peer culture is harsh that way, especially when we’re segregated with our age-mates rather than interacting with many fowl sorts in the larger community.

As adults, we measure our own success against the most attractive and capable ducks. That’s painful, but it’s what we learned from our earliest days on.

This isn’t to besmirch ducks. Ducks are great, particularly at being ducks. But some of us

are swans,

a

or storks,

or kingfishers,

or great blue herons.

Some of us aren’t birds at all.

 We’re frogs,

otters,

squirrels,

or dragonflies.

Every creature in and around the pond is necessary. Each is integral to the larger ecosystem’s wisdom.

We have to be extraordinarily stubborn day after day, year after year, in order to be ourselves.

The ugly ducklings of this world, the ones who still aren’t who they’re “supposed” to be, are the ones with the vision big enough to create a future for us all.

All images in the public domain. 

Poet Seeks Words

Unraveling Y, acrostic poet, Amy Heath,

Amy Heath. Sojourner, tinker, acrostic poet.

Amy Heath is a writer, poet, and artist. The past few years she’s lived a somewhat nomadic life, exploring ways to sustain herself while being true to her spirit.

I met Amy when she was a children’s librarian and children’s book author, back when I spent a lot of time in the picture book section with my four kids.  I was drawn to her friendly blue eyes and gentle manner. I cherished our brief, always lively conversations. I’d walk away thinking how much I’d like us to be friends but I was too shy to ask if we could get together because she was older, vastly cooler, and far more fascinating than I’d ever be. Fast forward to the last few years, when Amy befriended me. I’m giddy about it in a can’t-believe-my-luck sort of way.

One of the many things Amy is up to lately is a poetic challenge. About a year ago she decided she’d write an acrostic poem a day. Being Amy, she amped up the challenge by making a rule for herself that the acrostics must be composed around words chosen at random from a book or words others chose for her.

a·cros·tic   (ə-krô′stĭk, ə-krŏs′tĭk) n.
1. A poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence.

“The main point of this project was to play with words every day until I reach 60,” she says. “Until that idea struck me, I had been writing acrostics in a more serious vein, on words like mindfulness, anxiety, patience, empathy. I have seen many people approach the Big 6-0 with trepidation. Well, I would play my way there!”

And no matter what, she vowed to post each piece on her blog, Unraveling Y. She says, “After reading the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I decided that if I blogged these short daily creations I would feel somehow more accountable to my intention. My wordplays would be out there. And being fairly sure that very few people would read them, I felt liberated to do my best without worrying about what anyone thought of them. That’s good practice anyway. Worrying about what other people think is trespassing in their heads. Not cool.”

Amy’s poems find an inner presence in words, making each one into something so alive we can feel it breathe, as she does with equanimity.

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/space-sky-hand-fingers-paint-636894/

Even in the space of a few syllables.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/background-branch-dusk-evening-20862/

She turns a word into a tale that leaves us wondering.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/890638

She helps us understand why the Latin word for hearth has come to mean “center of activity.”

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

She shares little known history, explaining in her blog entry: “The lighthouse built by Ptolemy I Soter and completed by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus was a prototype for subsequent structures. Pharos, a small island, ultimately the tip of a peninsula near Alexandria, became the root word in many languages for lighthouse.”

Andreas Achenbach, Pharos, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/andreas-achenbach-sea-ocean-water-85762

She’s undaunted when faced with a word like quitch.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/951061

Among my favorites is a poem she composed around the word orenda, which is defined as “a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois to be present, in varying degrees, in all things and all beings, and to be the spiritual force underlying human accomplishment.”

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, birthday poem, orenda, pixabay.com/en/background-gold-golden-texture-630417/

Amy is brimming with acrostic-related ideas. She may write a book on a single theme or compose a children’s story using words for various literary devices. She may illustrate her poems using paint or yarn or glass. The future is open for my playfully creative friend.

What is she seeking right now?

Words.

She’s continuing her daily acrostic challenge and invites you to send her a word which she’ll gladly transform into a poem. Her email is unravelingy@gmail.com

While you’re at it, I suggest you:

visit her blog Unraveling Y 

read her memoir I Pity The Man Who Marries You

share her poems on social media

contact her to let her know how much you enjoy her work

consider embarking on a challenge of your own!

Evoking the State of Flow

state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, rapt absorption, learning through flow, advance learning with flow,

CC by 2.0 Jonf728’s flickr photostream

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.

Photo by Claire Weldon

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:

  1. when a person’s abilities are stretched nearly to their limits
  2. during a self-chosen pursuit
  3. 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.

Public domain by Cheryl Holt.

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