Getting in the Flow of Things

Due to some unprecedented circumstances this year, my classroom has been understaffed, which has meant a lot of juggling around of our schedule, greater expectations of the kids’ independence, and the constant, looming threat of teacher burnout.

In many ways, this year has been an incredible learning experience for me as a teacher.  I have had to be creative in how I managed the group, flexible with our curriculum, and more energetic than I knew I was capable.

One fall-out of the lack of resources this year has been a less structured day with longer stretches of free choice periods.  Incidentally, the only way this has been both possible and productive is because of the particular class I have.   They are simply an amazing group of little individuals who are capable, resourceful, imaginative, kind, and respectful.  They have become the community I dream of building every year.

I experienced something like visceral joy recently as I observed a group of my kids collectively creating their own activity that involved all of the elements of teacher-directed, structured lesson time, without the teacher – or the structured lesson!

All of which got me thinking about a state of mind called “Flow”, a phrase coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and PhD who studies optimal circumstances in which people are motivated. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. “To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

I have witnessed this concept of Flow more with this year’s class than any other.  In part, this is because the inherent lack of structure in this year’s schedule allows for it.  But it is also enabled it through the community we’ve built in the classroom itself.  Flow, the way I think about it, can only work with a group of people who trust one another and enjoy building something meaningful together. The group must feel comfortable, absent of stress, intrigued by their task, and free to explore and experiment; thereby lulled into a state of total immersion and happiness in what they are doing, completely free of distraction.

So the other day when I was observing a small group of children self-organize on the playground to create an assembly line of sorts, I couldn’t help but think of this. There was a collector who gathered leaves for a wheelbarrow, another who used a shovel as a catapult to fling sticks into the wheelbarrow, a wheelbarrow driver who took the collection over to another area of the playground where another child took the sticks and leaves to make “pies”, that finally the group organized in neat rows to sell.  They did this over and over again, each child with his or her role, working out any kinks in the process, until the whole system ran like a well-oiled machine!

As I watched this scene, it occurred to me that the kids had no idea I was standing there.  No idea there was anyone else around watching them. No self-consciousness.  They were totally immersed in this activity and invested in the productivity, efficiency, and teamwork of it all.  It was an exercise in problem solving, motor planning, sequencing, communication, cause and effect, and on and on.

Children need this kind of unstructured time to explore and get into the groove otherwise known as Flow.  They need teacher support to scaffold their work and play; and to lay the groundwork for the rules of cooperation.  But in the end, the time they are left to their own devices can be infinitely valuable.

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2 Responses to Getting in the Flow of Things

  1. As and adult, some of my most rewarding team projects have been when we all were in the flow like this. I love that these kids have this experience so young. And I hope that you know that you laid the groundwork and the boundaries for this to happen!

  2. kateak says:

    Marie – me too! I met this “flow” guy when I was working at Ernst & Young and we were trying to figure out how to make business teams more innovative and effective. It was fascinating and you see it so much happening organically with kids.

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