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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