Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Creative Kids Learn to Flow (Part 1)

For children, the benefits of getting familiar with flow are many.

Watch closely next time your child is deeply involved in play. If she's so focused on what she's doing that she doesn't come when you call her for dinner, she's not ignoring you just to be ornery. There's a good chance she's in a flow state. And that ought to be encouraged! Here's why.

Flow, as you know by now if you've been reading my blog (the first one is here), is a deliciously gratifying state of mind. And that's true for all ages. According to flow research, it happens whenever you're so absorbed in a task that you forget yourself. And that happens most when there's enough challenge to keep you interested but not so much that you get frustrated. In flow, as an adult or a child, time seems to disappear, and you want to keep right on doing whatever you're doing.

You're also more likely to be creative, says Teresa M. Amabile, Ph.D., creativity researcher at the Harvard Business School and author of Growing Up Creative. High achievers in any field experience it regularly. Children who have learned the knack for getting into flow tend to be happier, healthier, more involved in life.

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While your child's deep absorption may frustrate you at times, it pays to help her increase the time she spends in flow. Knowing how to find the fun and flow in activities can help your child concentrate better on schoolwork, even when the assignment seems boring at first glance.

WHEN LIFE IS ANTI-FLOW

Unfortunately, a lot about modern life, including a school day with classes broken up into short segments, works against intense concentration. In school, also, so much of what kids do is controlled by grades and adult approval.

"If these rewards become prominent in children's minds, they may overwhelm the intrinsic joy of doing something interesting and personally challenging," says Amabile. Many experiments by Amabile and others found that when kids are not offered rewards, they work longer at tasks and go back again and again to those tasks. Creative results don't often happen the first time you try something -- you've got to keep at it.

Most television programming also encourages short attention spans. It's essentially passive, while flow is active. Even structured after-school activities may take a toll on a child's ability to stay engaged with one thing for as long as it takes to lose herself in it.

Babies get into their own version of flow, such as when they're absorbed by their toes or a streak of sunlight to the exclusion of everything else. According to psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby, "Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults."

That sort of focus can be encouraged, and your role as a parent is to support self-motivated activities. Don't jump in and take over, but ask questions and give hints if your child is stuck.

Children who have learned to enjoy challenge need never be bored. They can find the fun in anything.

My next post will be a collection of ways to teach flow to youngsters.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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