Happiness and Flow

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.

The Theory of Concentrated Attention: Part II

Several months ago, I posted about the Theory of Concentrated Attention. Today, I witnessed this wonder first-hand yet again. My 17 1/2 month old niece is a busy girl. She is constantly here and there, and never rests. Today I gave her two tools – a saucepan and a wooden spoon. Kiddo, my six year old, added a few more elements: two ping pong balls another saucepan, and a couple of bowls. With all of these tools, I witnessed my niece quietly and intently play for a solid 45 minutes before she began to lose interest in the activity.

One note about the amazing nature of her play is her attachment to her grandmother. She adores grandma and becomes distraught whenever grandma leaves the room. While she was playing with the saucepans, spoons, balls, and bowls, grandma left the room several times and she didn’t even notice. She was so intent on her activity that I’m not even sure that she would have noticed if a train had come through the room.

I was completely amazed by her activity and intentness, and it set me to thinking about my own classroom and the process by which I choose the toys that are made available to the children. I have always had a standard by which I have gauged the toys, but I have never really been able to articulate what that standard is. After thinking about it, I have figured it out. I only choose toys that the children have to act upon in order to achieve a desired end of their own making. Toys that have buttons and play music require the children to act upon them, but the end result is not the child’s desired end, but the toy manufacturer’s. I don’t have a single toy in my classroom that has any features like that. There were some in the room when I took the classroom, but I was very quick to pass them on to other classes. I work hard to provide a selection of toys that require active thought processes of children, as well as their physical and mental participation in achieving an end result. By selecting these kinds of toys and activities, I see the Theory of Concentrated Attention come to life several times a day, and each time I see it, it amazes me. I have many, many pictures of children in my classroom participating in engaging activities that they have chosen, some of which I hadn’t even dreamed of, but which their minds have conceived and in which they are actively using their imaginations to achieve a desired result of their own making.

The process of learning is a wonderful thing.

The Theory of Concentrated Attention

For the past few weeks, my research has taken me in very unexpected (although not unwelcome) areas. I have been reading a book that has been very enlightening to me, and that I hope to review before my school semester starts. It ties a lot of basic principles together that I have been hard-pressed to try to work out for myself. It has also taken my research into discipline, punishments, rewards, classroom management, and curriculum into new areas which I had not foreseen. Suffice to say that I have been very surprised at how much the book has impacted me, for I had planned for my research to go a very different direction than the one it has taken.

According to this book, the phrase “theory of concentrated attention” was first used by Maria Montessori in 1917. John Dewey also used a version of the phrase: “theory of undivided interest”. Basically this theory pertains to any activity that children engage in independently that holds their interest in such a way that outside distractions do not disturb them for an amount of time that seems impossible for their age.

I have often seen this type of thing happen in my classroom and have marveled at it. I once saw a girl – a two-year-old – take her shoe off and work to put it back on her foot repeatedly for days until she had mastered putting her shoe back on her foot. When she was working with that shoe, nothing would distract her. I recently saw another two-year-old girl working with a lacing card not far from where her friends were playing a pretend game with their baby dolls – a game that she frequently plays with them. It is amazing to see a child enter this state because their demeanor changes; they become calmer, focused, and very in-tune to the task at hand.

Usually when anyone thinks of a two-year-old, they think of a wild child who tears through the room completely full of energy and spark. While this is true, two-year-olds (and other ages as well – I only single them out because I work with this age every day) exhibit an amazing capacity to concentrate on certain activities – as long as those activities are interesting to the child. Our job then, as teachers, is to come up with those activities that will hold the child’s interest and attention.

Very soon I will be doing a post about how curriculum goes hand-in-hand with discipline, but the idea that the activities that we provide need to be ones that hold our children’s interest hits very close to the theme of that topic. When children are engaged in an activity that interests them, they no longer have a need to go tearing around a room or bugging their friends to the point that there is an altercation. They become calmer and more able to work productively with others. It is a winning theory for the classroom.

But another point that I want to make at this time is that sometimes the activity that the child becomes interested in isn’t one that you have provided as a teacher. Concerning the child who worked so long on learning how to put her shoe on: if I, as her teacher, had fussed at her about taking her shoes off, took her shoes from her, and put them back on her feet myself, she never would have learned the skill of putting her shoes on her feet. Teachers need to be sensitive to what children are trying to accomplish on their own and less quick to judge what is right and wrong for a child to do. If we take a step back and observe what children are doing in any given moment, and try to put those actions into an objective developmental perspective rather than a judgmental perspective, we may see that there is more learning going on in “mistaken behaviors” than we may realize. And the reason why our field has chosen to label these behaviors as mistaken is not because the child is mistaken in doing them, but because it is so easy to mistake these behaviors for discipline issues. They usually are, in fact, experimental issues.

Children are like scientists; they constantly want to learn more about the world around them. If they aren’t given engaging activities to do, they will make some up for themselves. These activities could be anything from hitting their friends to find out what will happen, to hitting an object with another object to find out what will happen. To curtail these behaviors,  providing engaging activities and teaching the children how to properly explore with the materials for the activities is a must. It will lead to a much calmer, more focused classroom.

And you may even see the wonder of a child as they are so focused on the activity that you have provided that nothing else in the room matters.