A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I could somehow teach my google spreadsheets to do something automatically that I usually have to do manually. I woke up before sunrise thinking about this, and (before coffee) jumped behind my computer and began playing with it.
(I know this doesn’t sound like I’m going to talk about children. I’ll get there. I promise.)
Before I knew it, a couple of hours had passed. My spreadsheets were not only calculating correctly, but they were sharing information with each other. I was vibrating with delight as I extolled the virtues of my creation to my bleary-eyed husband, who still wasn’t quite sure why I had to get up in the dark on a weekend to work, especially with spreadsheets!
Yep, I was thrilled that my technology was lending me a much-needed helping hand, especially after years and years of mental acrobatics, but reflecting more I think what thrilled me the most was how I felt while I was working: I spent several hours that morning trying to figure out the right formulas for my needs, working with trial and error…and surprisingly (to me), not getting frustrated along the way. I was just…well, I was in a flow state, complete immersion. Flow states are ones where the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding; there is complete focus and concentration on the activity itself; there is a feeling of control over the situation and outcome, as well as feelings of serenity and a loss of self-consciousness. The tasks are doable and there’s a balance between skill level and challenge.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what you witness when children really sink into their play. Elements of being in flow align well with elements of what Anji Play would call “true play:” deep, uninterrupted engagement in self-directed activities, generally in spaces where materials, environment, and options support the individuals in the space, as well as the group. (For more information on Anji Play, please read my short article from 2020, when I first learned about it.)
This is what I strive for when I create my spaces for RIE classes…open-ended toys that have no ‘right’ way to use them, arranged in a way that invites exploration…and yet, babies and toddlers seem to be predisposed to drop quickly into a flow state, when left to their own devices (as they are in RIE classes). This week, alone, I’ve watched babies work on rolling back and forth, practice nesting rollers into one another, climb into and work their way out of small swim rings, play/lose/find/play with silicone straws. I’ve watched toddlers immerse themselves in balls and practice climbing up and over my Pikler triangle over and over and over again, and methodically open every jar in my space.
And in those same spaces, adults also have moments of flow…watching their children make discoveries and connections, recognizing impulses and worries as they arise and letting them fall away as situations (mostly) unfold, letting children take the lead and letting themselves simply observe. We hold back from intervening because, as Maria Montessori puts it, when the child becomes interested in an object, [we] must not interrupt, because this activity obeys natural laws and has a cycle; and if it is touched, it disappears like a soap-bubble and all its beauty with it. But when we refrain from interrupting, we are able to witness that beauty.
It’s not easy to do, even in RIE class, because we get inside of our heads…is he giving up too easily? Is she taking too many toys? Will she always? Oh, that looks hard, maybe I should help. But with practice and pausing, we get better and better. And a good place to start practicing your flow with children, believe it or not, is in your caregiving moments…during a diaper change or a feeding or dressing. Think about me when I’m offering snack (and wishing I had 8 arms) …I (try to) sync up with the children, matching their energy and readiness, their interests and desires…and they sync up with me, gauging my attentiveness and awareness (to solicit ‘more ‘nanna/agua/tea’ or to help themselves when they find me otherwise occupied). It’s an excellent opportunity for flow because it presents a doable, but challenging, task that invites focus and offers immediate feedback, as well as mutual opportunities for personal control over the situation and outcome.
Another element of being in a flow is experiencing a distorted sense of time, not being aware of time as it passes. I definitely felt that on that dark morning…and I wonder if your children also feel that as class comes to an end…what? I just got going! How is class already over?! And who wants to let go of that delicious state of flow?
I’m still thinking about it, weeks later…and feeling grateful for my almost daily opportunity to reach for recreating the feeling in RIE classes.
Here’s to finding your own flow this weekend…or witnessing your children’s.