Kids need to find their flow

Something special happens in kids when they spend time immersed in a core interest.  There is a reason why whole industries, from career advising to personality tests to dating services, exist to help us discover our passions.  Sometimes we need a little help digging deeper to understand what not only captures our attention, but also what will hold it over weeks, months and years.

One telltale sign that we’ve discovered our interest nirvana is the sensation of “flow”, that state of intense involvement where we lose track of time because we are so engaged in an activity.  As adults, we learn to appreciate these moments of super energy and fulfillment.  As kids, we called this having fun.  Now, as parents, we are beginning to appreciate the importance of understanding and developing our own children’s unique interests to give them more opportunities for flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, is known as the “father of flow” for his pioneering research into happiness and creativity.  He defines flow as, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.”

Kids that can enjoy an activity “for its own sake” rather than for some external reward, like praise or a grade or a trophy, will experience flow more often.  This type of autotelic personality matches well with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s philosophy of a growth mindset. Rather than believing their success is limited by their inherent skills, kids that simply enjoy the challenge in front of them will continue to grow and learn.

Being engaged and interested in a subject also makes for better learners.  In a recent article, education writer Annie Murphy Paul summarized the research of University of North Carolina psychologist Paul Silvia; “Interest is at once a cognitive state and an affective state, what Silvia calls a ‘knowledge emotion.’ The feelings that characterize interest are overwhelmingly positive: a sense of being energized and invigorated, captivated and enthralled. As for its effects on cognition: interest effectively turbocharges our thinking.”

The key is to balance the challenge of the activity with a child’s skill level.  Too easy or difficult and boredom or anxiety sets in.  Silvia describes this ideal mixture as being “novel, complex and comprehensible” or, in other words, new, challenging but still understandable.

While many authors have written about flow, few have delved deeper into the science of it than Steven Kotler.  In his new book, “The Rise of Superman”, he examines flow’s state of bliss through the eyes of extreme sports athletes, like back-country skiers, rock climbers, surfers or sky-jumpers.  Living on the constant edge of skill versus danger, they rely on the hyper-focus of flow to keep them alive while living at the highest peak of joy.


In his research, he noted that we need to prime kids’ activities with these opportunities to stretch their horizons. “We now know that there are 17 ‘flow triggers’ - these are preconditions that lead to more flow,” Kotler told me in a recent interview. “Essentially, since flow follows focus, all of these triggers are ways of driving attention into the now. The easiest way to create more flow in the lives of our children is to pack their activities with these triggers. This isn’t a new idea, by the way. Montessori education has been show to be an incredibly high flow environment built around a number of key flow triggers. Since we know that flow accelerates learning, this helps explain why Montessori kids usually outperform regularly educated kids on everything from academics to social skills.”

He also sees the tie-in with the growth mindset and what psychologist Angela Duckworth calls “grit” or perseverance and passion for long-term goals. “We know that grit requires a growth mindset which correlates with flow,” said Kotler. “To put this in slightly different terms, we know that flow requires people to constantly stretch their abilities and raise the challenge level. This means that anyone who is experiencing flow on a regular basis is constantly pushing themselves—and this would be totally impossible without grit.”

When you mix these ingredients with the core strengths of a child, what you get is a super-achiever, fully engrossed in what he or she is doing, accomplishing things that are extraordinary, and all the while following their passion and growing as an individual.  It’s a combination that we as parents strive to help our kids discover, and there is a powerful payoff when it comes together.

We all have different triggers that spark our interests and our kids are no different. If you haven’t already, ask them to take the Thrively Strength Profile.  Taking the time to objectively find out what they find fascinating and where their core strengths lie may be the best gift we can give them.


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DanPeterson Dan Peterson is exploring the intersection of sports skill development and cognitive science at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental.  Studying how the brain learns and adapts to the physical and emotional demands of sports, he has authored over 250 science-based articles for parents and coaches trying to understand their young athletes.  Be sure to follow him on TwitterFacebook and Google+.  

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