Can Young Children Experience “Flow?”

In the 'Tools of the Mind' preschool program, teachers have children role play. Can they focus during this play and have a blissful 'Flow' experience?  photo credit:

The classic book on adult happiness, Flow, is about an intensely focused, yet blissful, state of mind. We adults experience it when we’re immersed in accomplishing some task so deeply that we lose awareness of all other things, including time. Many adults, myself included, think it is the ultimate state of happiness.

Thus, I was quite disappointed to read in my favorite new child development book, The Philosophical Baby, that author Alison Gopnik does not believe that young children (i.e. ages 0 – 5) can have Flow experiences. She believes that infants and toddlers have “lantern consciousness,” so that their attention hops across many subjects quickly, as opposed to adults’ “spotlight consciousness.”

Meanwhile, a recent article in The New York Times Magazine discusses an experimental preschool program called “Tools of the Mind” that is based on play, but makes play there a focused task that students need to complete – i.e. like “work.” Gopnik’s theory would predict that toddlers would not be very successful in this program because of their inability to focus their attention. It would not feel very much like “play” to children because they would not feel free to let their minds wander.
Nonetheless, the child development theorists running Tools of the Mind are hoping they can prove that children who play in this more focused way – roleplaying within a set of rules, setting goals regularly, reflecting on their performance relative to those goals – can lead to cognitive benefits later in the school years.

This experiment is quite seductive, but controversial. Can children be encouraged to play in a way that increases their cognitive functioning? And even if encouraging this sort of play yields these cognitive gains, does the fact that adults are making it happen take the enjoyment – and “play” – out of it? This is a vital question, because a truly joyous “Flow” experience requires that the person feel like he or she is in control of the situation.

I can’t say I know for sure what the answers are to these questions, but I really hope that both these things are possible: 1) children’s play can be channeled in a focused direction that leads to cognitive benefits later, and 2) children can experience Flow when they’re focused and are accomplishing some task.

Moreover, I intuitively believe that both of these are possible. Many of my happiest memories of early childhood involve my accomplishing things that required a lot of focus and determination. I remember building sophisticated Lincoln Logs structures. I remember filling those coin collector books with pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. And, I remember helping my neighborhood friends run a carnival to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy.

All this is not to say that young children, when focused and “working,” are experiencing anything like what adults are experiencing when they’re focused and working. Adults are usually stressed when they’re focused. When young kids are focused, they’re hardly ever stressed.

Perhaps it is the Flow state in which children and adults share a common experience. Skeptics like Alison Gopnik may quibble that Tools of the Mind is trying to force preschool children to focus when they may not be ready for it. Or, even if they are ready, pre-preschool children (i.e. ages 2 and under) are definitely not ready to focus.

I’d like to think, however, that maybe, just maybe, the Flow experience is a joyous state that all of us humans share. We adults have a very hard time connecting our Flow experiences with our observations of young children because our understanding of what’s going on in their minds is still quite limited. Just because they’re not responding to our stimuli in a focused way doesn’t mean they’re not focused – it just means they haven’t yet learned how to interact with us the way we’d like.

My three month-old son Leo is capable of deep focus when he’s staring at one of our faces. He seems to be quite content, even energized, when he’s doing it. Could it be that he’s feeling a sense of blissful accomplishment as he constructs his own understanding of who I am, like I do when I create a Slotwood house with my older two boys?

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3 Responses to Can Young Children Experience “Flow?”

  1. mark_powell says:

    Hi Mike,

    Maria Montessori described what has now become known as “flow” over a hundred years ago, in children as young as 3. Later Montessorians have described this state in infants and toddlers. “Lantern consciousness” is a function of the “lantern world” that we live in these days! Dr. Montessori talked about it as concentration, and believed that the state of concentration was what allowed children to build their personalities. When this state is interrupted, children act out because there is a drive in them to build themselves in that state, which they strive for. Her classrooms allow for long periods of uninterrupted work-play, where children choose activities they have been introduced to of their own free will (mostly).

    Montessori actually called it work-play because her idea of work is what most people would call directed play. We adults like to think of “free play” as undirected, but it’s really pretty directed by the materials that are put out for children. She just paid more attention to what materials were made available. Her descriptions of children working in her classrooms are pretty much what the unspellable Hungarian dude calls flow.

    Such a shame that we have to keep reinventing the wheel in education!


    Mark Powell

  2. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — I certainly think ‘flow’ is possible in children. I’ve seen it in my own kids and, like you, remember feeling it as a child. I agree with Montessori (per Mark) that you can see it in children as young as three. While being able to concentrate on one activity for a long time certainly comes more naturally to some kids, others ‘flit’ between activities — but in that flitting they too can enjoy flow, I’d argue.

    Give kids a full belly, a good night’s sleep, a space in which they feel safe and some basic, interesting materials (cardboard boxes, tape etc.) and most over 4 will keep themselves busy for an amazingly long time. They often need help initially, though — with working out conflicts with playmates, with deciding which materials to use, with an initial idea (let’s build a fort!), with clearing a space when it is too full of materials and so more overwhelming than inviting for play — and that’s where advocates of totally intervention-free play get it wrong, I think.

    Programs like ‘Tools of the Mind’ are really interventionist in getting play started, but a more watchful kind of supervision (like Bing Nursery School’s) works too. The great skill of early childhood education, it seems to me, is knowing what to offer, when to step in and when to let the children fly.

  3. june says:

    This essay is from one of our fabulous Montessori teachers.. they emphasize the concept of the “Absorbent” mind..

    A major component of the Montessori educational philosophy speaks to developmental periods in a child’s life and how those periods dictate how information coming into the brain, through the senses, is processed. As teachers and adults in the child’s life, the philosophy guides us in creating powerful learning environments for the child. From birth to six is what Montessori called the all around formative period of the Absorbent Mind. It is the period in the child’s development that forms the foundation for later intellectual and psychological development. Montessori believed that it is of utmost importance for us to take full advantage of this unique “mind” so that we can most fully enrich the formation of the child’s mind and body.

    The Absorbent mind is an unconscious, creative and non-selective process by which the brain takes in everything from the environment, takes it in like a sponge, forming neural pathways and connections. The brain in the post-natal period is purposely not neurologically fixed so that each child can adapt to the needs dictated by his environment. This not only allows for variation in behavior but also for change and creativity. Infants are born into different environments, different cultures all over the world and the Absorbent Mind allows them to adapt to their “time, place and group”. It is a process from which the child grows and the culture that the child is born into is perpetuated. It is a fundamental mechanism for survival.

    The period of the Absorbent Mind is broken down into two sub periods: the unconscious from birth to 3 and the conscious from 3 – 6 years. In the period from 0-3 years the child is unconsciously absorbing what is around him and is more reactive than purposeful in his actions. From 3-6 years the child begins to explore the outer environment through more purposeful movement and exercise. This period is when the brain begins to order and classify experiences, bringing order to the myriad of sensations coming into the brain. The child also begins to refine these experiences and to utilize them in a more purposeful way. The period from 3-6 years is still an absorbent time. Sensations are still being registered effortlessly, but the child is now beginning to act more consciously towards the world around him.

    The Montessori primary classroom is precisely designed to fully take advantage of this formative period of the Absorbent Mind. The environment is rich, reflects the dominant culture of the child and is stimulating to all the major senses. Materials are designed to help the child classify and order information and grow cognitively, socially and emotionally.