Flow describes a sense of effortless spontaneous action that people feel in moments that stand out as some of the best in their lives. The concept stems from the seminal research of Mihály Csikszentmihalyi.
He found that most people are happy when they are in that state of flow - a state of concentration or complete absorption in the activity at hand. Athletes call it "being in the zone." Artists and musicians describe it as being passionately focused on their creative work. Children experience it when they are fully engrossed in their play.
What does flow have to do with learning? Well, the experience of flow can serve as a magnet for learning -- that is, a draw for developing new levels of challenges and abilities. The learning environments found in youth work can offer prime opportunities to foster flow. Csikszentmihalyi identified a number of factors that accompany the experience.
I have taken eight of those factors and described them in the context of youth work practice to provide some ideas on how to build learning environments that support flow.
Flow is most often achieved when goals have been set by youth themselves, and are achievable and measurable.
In a relaxing and engaging environment where they can focus, youth may also develop persistence, which comes when they are given time to practice endurance. In our well intended rush to give youth answers and to provide an efficient learning experience, adults deny youth the vital opportunity to explore long enough to find out the answers for themselves.
Loss of self-consciousness
Youth often feel as though they are surrounded by an invisible audience. Concerns such as how youth look to others or how well they measure up to others' expectations will rob them of flow. So, incorporate methods or curricula that help youth bolster their self-esteem and shape a strong sense of self.
In flow, youth know how well they are doing in real time. This can happen in a variety of ways. Adults or peers could give youth clear and immediate feedback on their performance. Eventually youth can learn how to judge the quality of their own performance and improve by seeking out resources for themselves.
Altered sense of time
Youth have the innate ability to become so absorbed in an activity or topic that fascinates them that time seems to stands still. Equally they can turn off quickly when they decide something is boring. Adults can ruin youth learning processes by rushing them through too much material, in too short a time, and by not giving them the chance to relate a new idea to their earlier experiences.
Ability, balanced with challenge
Anxiety can set in if an activity is too challenging. Boredom can be experienced if the activity is not challenging enough. Apathy can occur if both challenge and ability are too low. Gradually increasing both ability and challenge will help youth experience flow.
It is important to feel in control of an activity. In this case, control is the confidence that comes from having the self-knowledge to predict what you can do because you have prepared for the activity.
Flow cannot be imposed or rewarded with artificial recognition. Rather, it stems from an inner joy that comes from being engaged in an activity. Help youth find their internal motivation by creating vibrant learning environments that allow for sparks to emerge.
Do you see a relationship between happiness and flow? Do you see youth experiencing it? Could an emphasis on flow serve as a magnet for learning?
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development
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