Today I watched a child working with some boards to create some ramps. It was quite a system that he set up:
At one point, he had a really hard time balancing the boards on the different cones and objects that he was using for that purpose. I watched him closely to see if he would get frustrated, but he simply kept right on working and adjusting, trying to get everything to fit and stay the way that he wanted it to. When he was done, the results were very impressive.
I have watched children like this for a while. When they are creating and they are really in that creative zone, they don’t seem to get as frustrated as they would if they were being asked to do something or if they aren’t in that zone. They work harder and smarter and really focus on what they are doing. They don’t really give up until they get so frustrated that they have to walk away – and then they walk away. They don’t fuss or cry or scream, they just simply walk away.
The differences in attitude between the children who get in this zone and the ones who don’t are so astounding to me. I experiment with different materials in the classroom all the time to try to find things that allow children to enter into this state of focus. Open-ended materials, loose parts – these are the materials that guide children into flow. They are much better than the plastic toys that most manufacturers market as the best toys for children. Children don’t need fancy toys to create. They simply need real, found materials, some time, and some patience from us. When they have those things, they have super-focus and the perseverance to build amazing structures, all on their own.
In the roughly one-third of the day that is free of obligations, in their precious ‘leisure’ time, most people in fact seem to use their minds as little as possible. The largest part of free time – almost half of it for American adults – is spent in front of the television set. The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although watching TV required the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required. Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television…the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and quality of life.
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychologybof Optimal Experience
I’ve been thinking a lot today about happiness because of a book that I got yesterday from the bookstore. The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who has spent years studying creativity. I had bought this book before but it hadn’t really done much for me so I sold it at the local used book store. Lately it has been on my mind, so when I saw it at the bookstore last night I bought this copy. This time it is really captivating my interest, especially since flow is such a powerful thing in my life. Flow is the term used to define the phenomenon of perfect focus – when you are so focused on an activity that time doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the activity that you are doing. I know from my own personal life that flow is an exhilarating experience, one that I look forward to with anticipation and remember fondly when it is over. It is the feeling that motivates me to keep going when I feel like giving up on a project that I have been working so hard on.
One of the things that I have been trying to do is figure out how to bring the phenomenon of flow into the classroom. Children would greatly benefit from flow, and I feel that they probably experience it more than we do as adults. When we are adults we are busy doing all of those things that are expected of us, and not necessarily those things that we want to do. Experiences that involve flow are experiences that are personally satisfying to us, those activities that we are loathe to stop doing in order to do something else. How many times have children told us that they don’t want to clean up, that they want to keep playing? Is that flow? Do they get so involved in their own activities that time seems to stand still and nothing else is important? Probably. Children may experience flow a lot, especially those that are given the opportunity to choose their own work rather than being told what to do all day.
Maria Montessori developed the Theory of Concentrated Attention when she was teaching because she noticed a similar phenomenon. She noticed that when children were involved in a task that was challenging – but not too challenging – it was almost as if they blocked out the world around them and they were completely consumed by the task that they were working on. Montessori judged all of the materials that she used by this phenomenon: if the material led children to this concentrated attention, then it was kept in the classroom. If it didn’t, then it didn’t stay. I have tried to use this same method to determine what types of materials should be present in the classroom. Creating an atmosphere that is conducive to concentrated attention and flow isn’t necessarily hard, but it means that there will be a lot more loose parts in the classroom and not so many manufactured toys. It means that children have more choice, as well.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Mihaly’s assertion that creating a life where flow is more present creates feelings of happiness and productivity. I haven’t read all of the book yet; this is simply his assertion in the first chapter. He says that in order for us to feel that our lives are meaningful, we need to feel that we are in control of our lives. But he isn’t talking about the material aspects of life. He is talking about the mental aspects of life – our mindset and how we view our place in the world.
So far it looks like it is going to be a great read, and I hope to share more of my insights as I continue reading the book.
I’ve been doing some form of project work with my classes for the last two or three years. It hasn’t been quite as structured as I’m learning to do project work because I didn’t have as much knowledge about it, but it has been there, based on what I learned through the reading that I did do. As I work in a center that is more focused on providing opportunities for project work as an educational philosophy, I grow to appreciate the flow of the project and of the day. There are times when the teacher has to facilitate a discussion, or plan an activity, or devise an addition to a center to enhance play. And then there are times when the teacher needs to just stand back and watch it all unfold.
I have long been a proponent of observation as a key – THE key – to high-quality teaching. There is no way to know what the class is interested in without observation. There is no way to know what the children are learning from discussions without observing them as they play to see what aspects of the discussion they are carrying with them and using. There is no way to know what direction to take the project without watching observing to see what the children are wondering or what misconceptions they show through their play. There is no way to truly understand the hearts of the children in the classroom without observing them.
Observation is so important, and taking the time to observe actions, words, and interactions is the key to being able to figure out what truly needs to be taught. Academic knowledge is wonderful and it has its place in my classroom, but I like to think of myself as a teacher of life. In order to teach about life, I have to clue myself in to the lives of the children in my care. I can’t do that by standing in front of them spouting out facts and then viewing their play time as a time for me to get some of my busy work done. I am just as involved in their play as they are, but I am noticing, noting, planning, questioning, and documenting. I am finding ways to help their learning come alive. Taking time to be still and let the children show me their lives is an essential part of the flow of the project.
For a lot of teachers out there, the school year is just beginning. I work in corporate care, so my school year never ends. But in honor of those teachers who are going back to school, I want to post this article I found on Edutopia this week. The article is about having your best teaching year ever, and it has some great advice about how to make that happen. I have applied these principles in years past and have had several great years. I want to see this school year be my best year ever as I venture into a new classroom and a new journey! Who’s with me?!
Teachers: Preparing for Your Best Year Ever by Elena Aguilar