Find your child's flow

a child experiencing flow through painting on the walls - tots to teens

What is flow?

“Flow” can be defined as becoming fully immersed in a task, or completely lost in an activity. One minute you have just begun, and later when you put down the work at hand, hours have flown by in the blink of an eye.

We can identify flow in our children when they have been quiet in their room for a while and then come back out again to show us the drawing they have been creating. Even when children are engrossed in an uninterruptible game of play pretend, this is the beginnings of flow. In this play time, the activity becomes autotelic (the activity or task having an end or purpose in itself), an integral idea to flow. While parents may not see flow to be as important as homework, play is where the real work is done.

An article in the American Journal of Play, by Peter Gray (a professor of psychology), states that this “free-play”, or more recently the developing notion of “flow”, is self-directed and an end in itself. When adults have too much control over organised activities, this space can be lost. Flow and free-play is found at the edge of boredom. As founder Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow, explains in his book, “enjoyment appears at the boundary of boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

Sometimes our children can find a flow in activities we don’t actively want to encourage. For instance, video-gaming. However, the normal rules apply here: as long as gaming is being monitored for a set time according to a child’s age, then flow can still be a positive thing. An integral part of flow is its “challenge to skills” balance. This sweet spot is where the challenge is not too overwhelming, but just enough of a challenge to be a motivational force forward. This is where gaming can intersect in a constructive way with flow. When your child feels challenged enough that they are motivated to finish the level, but not frustrated enough to quit it all together, this is the flow sweet spot.

Flow is the space where your child does not feel limited by their own inhibitions; it is a zone of confidence and creativity where the mind can plunge freely and purposefully into an activity. It can be found in fun activities (such as imaginative role play and art) that seem to come naturally to children. The trick is managing to grow and cultivate this skill into adulthood. As the quote goes, the creative adult is the child who survived.

How can we, as parents, encourage flow time?

Learn to recognise it when you see it. When children are in this space of play, they are learning to navigate their environment. They are the masters of their imaginary worlds: making decisions, solving problems and handling their emotions. They are discovering the boundaries of their fear (through tasks such as climbing trees), all the while knowing parents are close by. At the same time, they are discovering the fruits of their future passions, such as climbing, drawing, running, storytelling. When you recognise that your child is in a happy flow, be aware of not interrupting them unless you have to, and if there is something you want them to get done (like chores), then maybe ask yourself would it hurt to give them another half an hour.

If your child is not showing it, then learn to cultivate it. As parents, we have the chance to introduce our children to a variety of experiences and opportunities. By doing this, we are offering different activities for our children to find passion in. Flow can be cultivated once passions are found, and passions can be found in all manner of activities: doing some baking; scrapbooking and cutting up pages; practising an instrument; or in the middle of a sporting match. When kids discover flow in activities they love, they can learn to assimilate it into their adult lives, both professional and personal.

Monkey see, monkey do! Children grasp concepts much quicker when they see it modelled by their parents. How often do you, as a parent, give yourself time to sink into a great book, get out the sketchpad that has been gathering dust, or even pull out those old rollerblades? How often do you all sit around a board game and the hours fly by? Flow is often a solo task, but it can be found in intimate family moments where the time is lost in each other’s company. On holidays, don’t pack out your schedule, make sure there is down time so that your kids can experience flow.

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