The right environment and some strategic preparation can help kids find flow with art. When we craft their surroundings and assignments with flow in mind, kids can get there more easily, and more often.
What is “Flow”?
The idea of “flow” was coined by psychologist and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD. His book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (affiliate link) and his TED Talk, “Flow, the Secret to Happiness”, made “flow” a household word.
In his TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi explained the origin of the term “flow”. People he interviewed would describe times when their work seemed to “flow” out of them without much effort.
We’ve all had that experience different times. Flow is that wonderful feeling of “being in the zone”. Time seems to stand still as you become completely immersed in whatever you’re doing.
Your concentration and focus increases and you become less aware of what’s happening around you. You might lose track of time completely as you “lose yourself” in what you’re doing.
To be in a state of flow requires that you enjoy the activity you’re involved in. But it goes beyond just doing something you take pleasure in. You must also find challenge in it, but have enough skill and understanding to not become frustrated.
What benefits does flow have for kids?
Flow can help kids increase their skill, concentration, and focus. It can help them regulate their emotions, and lead to greater creativity, enjoyment, and fulfillment.
Experiencing flow in one area can lead to finding flow in other areas, too. It becomes easier to tap into that increased attention and focus in many activities.
Once kids experience flow, it becomes its own intrinsic motivation. Think of the last time you found yourself “in the flow”. It just feels good!
Flow helps kids learn to enjoy a challenge. Kids who can find flow are more likely to become adults who can find flow in their work, hobbies, and daily life. Everyone can benefit from flow!
What prevents kids from experiencing flow?
Younger children naturally operate in a state of flow when they’re playing. But as they grow older, they become more easily distracted.
When kids start working for external rewards, like grades or the approval of adults, they get further away from experiencing flow.
Many aspects of modern life encourage a short attention span, which works against entering a state of flow. Think of how a child’s school day is broken up, or the activities kids are shuffled to and from on the weekend.
Passive activities, like watching TV or checking social media, also hinder the ability to find flow. Less opportunities for flow will naturally result in fewer instances of it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a state of flow will always be active. So if you’re not seeing activity, it won’t result in flow.
3 steps to help kids find flow with art
1. Start with a warm-up.
The many transitions in a typical school day can make your head spin! So start with some warm-ups to help kids make the switch to art.
Warm-ups can be purely physical, like arm swings and stretches, for loosening up. A few seconds of jumping jacks or running in place can help get the wiggles out.
To warm up before painting, kids could paint a series of shapes or try writing in cursive with their paintbrush.
Warming up with a Buddha Board (affiliate link) can be a stress-free way to transition into drawing or painting. And wedging clay or rolling coils is always a great warm-up for ceramics!
Warm-ups can help set the stage for flow, but you’ll need more than just that for flow to occur.
2. Balance skill with challenge.
Before we can help kids find flow, they will need some degree of skill in what they’re doing. They will also need a challenge or a goal to work toward.
The trick is to find the balance between skill and challenge. A good project will be just beyond a child’s comfort zone, which is also the place where skills increase. If they have too little skill they’ll be frustrated; too little challenge and they’ll be bored.
To help kids find flow, choosing the right project is key.
Try combining a skill kids have already learned with a new challenge that seems just a bit out of reach. I’ve watched many kids enter a flow state while working on my Echo Drawing and Mix 100 Colors resources.
3. Provide time and space, free from interruption.
Time and space can feel like a luxury in school settings, between the time constraints and the numbers of kids. But it’s worth the effort it takes to create it. Kids can’t achieve flow without focus, concentration, and a block of time to use it.
The things that take kids off task will be different in each situation. Try to figure out what those distractions are for your students. Then assess what you can do to limit them.
Sound can be very distracting. The Instrumental Classroom Playlist (find this on Spotify) provides a kind of “white noise”, enabling kids to tune out many interruptions.
Or designate the first 10 minutes of work time as a “no talking” time. Kids tend to be more receptive to this when it’s presented as “only for a few minutes”. Then, occasionally students will surprise you and become so engaged that 10 minutes will turn into 20 minutes… or more!
Removing visual clutter can make your space less distracting and more conducive to flow. Prevent kids from being out of their seats distracting their classmates by having all their supplies within reach.
Sometimes a good challenge is all it takes to capture students’ attention and hold their focus, even amidst total chaos! An doable, engaging challenge can be the key to the kingdom when we help kids find flow.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”~ Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, 1990
an inspiring quote:
“Just start. Do a little and see what happens.” ~ James Clear
Kids are constantly being exposed to new things… that’s just part of being a kid! We never know when something will ignite their interest and become a lifelong passion.
Sometimes new materials and techniques can be intimidating. We need to remind kids to try new things like this with an open mind. If they just “do a little and see what happens”, it could even lead to “flow”!