What do these three people have in common; Jimi Hendrix, Usain Bolt and my son?
My son would say that, like Hendrix, he too wants to be a rock star AND, like Bolt, he too is likely to be the fastest man on earth, but I was thinking of something a little more low key, something a little more modest perhaps – they have all experienced Flow.
What is Flow?
We have all been there I suspect – my dear son deeply engaged with some intense task – building a dam, creating an Octonaut pad, constructing a catapult device – he hardly seems to hear me tell him that it is time to wrap up a task and come for supper. It is easy to get frustrated, just when you want to get bedtime going or redirect his focus you can hardly get his attention… Sound familiar?
It just might be that he is not wilfully ignoring me, it could be that he is deep in the moment and is experiencing what Marie Montessori called “Normalisation”, what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly beautifully called “Flow”, a mental state that has been observed in Taoism and Hindu for centuries and what Buddhism calls Mindfulness.
We have all admired Flow too, usually from a distance – that complete absorption one sees in musicians, especially found in improvisational soloists, bass guitarists and group drummers – self awareness slips away and a sense of spontaneous and effortless flow becomes evident. Or watching sportsmen and women, hearing them talking about being “in the zone” when they produce effortless and focused performances, their whole bodies moving in harmony. Flow seems to be a highly compelling mental state.
In fact, most of us can recall states of flow – maybe in a sport or a hobby? Possibly simply reading a book? Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes Flow as “being completely involved in an activity for it’s own sake” – loosing oneself, loosing sense of time or even place. When we are in flow, problems fade away and our involvement goes deeper, in fact I like to think that I am experiencing a state of Flow right now, if only I didn’t have to do the school run in 10 minutes.
You have probably observed it in your own children – given a block of time (Montessori recommends 3 unstructured hours ) and some learning tools, they kick around for a bit, say they are bored and then before long they settle into focused, calm and alert playing, immersing themselves in a task, seeking a specific outcome, happily focusing on a challenge, loosing track of time…
The three conditions
How can we help our children experience this envious state of Flow more readily? Flow theory suggests three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task. Encourage choice of play, this helps develop a sense of autonomy, confidence and allows kids to engage in something that genuinely interests them.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the child negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state. Csikszentmihaly found that clearly achievable goals were vital for flow and helps create structure and direction.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. Create challenges that are obtainable, one must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand thus avoiding stressful outcome.
Create opportunity for deep concentration to evolve – be flexible with time scale, location, toys and tools. Positive feed back (but not interruptions) helps kids stay in flow. So, turn off the TV, put down the tablet, get out some toys and allow the kids to loose themselves in deep, nourishing, creative play!
Daniel Goleman (12 September 1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bloomsbury. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-7475-2830-2. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
The Absorbent mind, 257.
TED lecture, Andy Puddicombe on Mindfulness.
“What is Flow” http://psychology.about.com/od/PositivePsychology/a/flow.htm
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Flow and Education.” The NAMTA Journal 22.2 (1997, Spring): 3-35.