When children are supported to explore on their own through hands-on play, they enter a state of flow. Psychologists describe flow as “optimal experience,” and educators increasingly describe flow as the optimal state for learning. Through their self-led explorations, they learn indelible lessons, including skills that form the basics of authentic academic thinking needed later in life, such as focusing on a chosen topic, problem-solving and planning next steps, estimating and anticipating results, spatial thinking, developing a strategy, calculating a risk, discerning between real and imagined, and recognizing patterns.
How children learn is as important as what they learn. To recognize when a child or student is in a state of flow, observe whether any of the features listed below occur. (Note: Not all elements need to be present for an activity to become a flow experience.)
» A self-chosen challenge: Has the child taken the opportunity to choose his or her own ways of playing with the toys and play environments you provide?
» Focus and concentration: Does the child undergo periods of intense focus while playing — so much so that he or she doesn’t even respond when called?
» Lack of self-consciousness: Is the child naturally self-confident and unworried during play? This is a sign that the learning is taking place through self-guided activity.
» Clear goals: Does the child create goals while playing, such as building a block tower? Children may change their goals while playing or working on something, which is part of their learning process.
» Balance between skills and challenge: Does the child often chose activities he or she already knows? Already learned skills correspond to a child’s inner world and create a safe point from which to start when stretching out of a comfort zone. Flow activities allow children to practice what they already know and learn new things at just the right pace.
» Feeling of timelessness: Does the child forget about time during play? Do you need to help the child with time limits in order to move on?
» Embodied experience: Do the child’s movements become stronger, more cohesive and more skillful while playing? Activities acquired in flow, such as anticipating results, spatial thinking, developing a strategy and calculating a risk, become body memories that are rarely forgotten.
» Intrinsic rewards: Does the child seem visibly fulfilled and happily tired after an activity? One of the most important markers for flow is a feeling of deep fulfillment during and after a flow experience. There is no need to award prizes, gold stars or other external rewards.
» A lack of awareness of bodily needs: Does the child forget to drink water, eat or rest while playing? When children are in a state of flow, they may need our help with meeting their physical needs.
» Active imagination: Does the child have a bright imagination? A child in a flow state doesn’t merely climb a playground ladder; in the child’s imagination, the ladder leads to an imaginary place.
While it’s true that children can experience a focused flow state while on electronic devices, they are then usually depleted after screen time. By contrast, following hands-on play with toys, spending time on a playground or exploring outside, children feel happily tired, fulfilled and joyful. This is why hands-on, self-guided play is preferable for healthy child development.
What you can do to help a child drop into flow? Use these guidelines to help children find their flow state:
1. Ensure emotional safety. For children to deeply engage in their play, they need to feel emotionally safe. Young children rely on adults to provide them with feelings of safety in various environments. Learning cannot be separated from feeling.
2. Provide physical safety. Young children often don’t yet know when they are in actual physical danger. When we provide them with supervised freedom, they can remain safe and focused while learning to handle risky objects, such as needles, glassware or scissors, or when they develop important vestibular skills, such as balancing, climbing and jumping.
3. Create special play environments for flow. Prepare special places in the home or daycare setting where the child is undisturbed and can focus on activities, such as a block play area, a doll house, a water play station and an arts and crafts space.
I hope you enjoy watching your child play knowing you are supporting them to meet important developmental needs.