Help Your Child Find the Flow

By The Duke Talent Identification Program

The next time you see your child engrossed in a video game, watch carefully. Notice the look of intense concentration. Except for the occasional gasp of excitement or exasperation, he or she is silent and may remain that way for hours, enraptured.“Ah,” the cry goes up from a million parents, “if only we could get them to concentrate that hard on their homework!” Fortunately, psychologists who have studied the kind of optimal experience that video games can provide have discovered clues to how parents can help their children experience a deep level of engagement in learning activities—even homework.

Flow is a highly personal and individual experience.

For more than two decades, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-SENT-me-high-ee) has studied optimal experience—a sense of profound mastery, at work or play, in which concentration and performance just seem to flow. People in flow are completely absorbed, effortlessly focused, and unaware of the passing of time. Their self-confidence rises, and their competency grows. Those who experience flow are tremendously motivated by it and are drawn to re-creating it as often as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi discovered that the flow state is associated with increased learning, higher-order thinking, and intrinsic motivation. While we can imagine how athletes and artists might be prone to optimal experiences, Csikszentmihalyi found that any meaningful activity, in almost any setting, can produce flow. He observed that all flow experiences have certain factors in common:

  • Clear goals. Having a clear goal in mind helps order the experience and helps the person identify success. For example, games can reinforce flow because they provide the player with unambiguous goals: sink the basket, cross the finish line, or blast the space alien.
  • Feedback. Flow experiences provide continuous feedback on a person’s performance: advancing to the next level of a video game or making sense of a prose passage.
  • Balance of challenge and skill. Flow requires an intricate balance between a person’s perception of the difficulty of a task and his or her ability to complete it successfully. A person who expects a task to be easy may become bored with it and have difficulty concentrating on it. On the other hand, a task perceived as too difficult may cause a person to become anxious and avoid it. Flow occurs when the challenge presented by a task matches the individual’s mastery level—that is, when it’s almost but not quite too hard.
  • Concentration. Avoiding distractions is important to becoming engrossed in an activity. It is hard for a child to stay engaged in an English assignment if the television is blaring or soccer practice is ten minutes away.

Dr. Vicki Stocking has studied flow among gifted children and believes that parents can create situations that help their children experience optimal engagement. But to do so, Stocking says, “parents need to pay careful attention to their children’s interests and abilities. . . . Flow is a highly personal and individual experience.”

One challenge is to help children identify motivating goals. While we may want our kids to set their sights on objectives that are important to us and to teachers—academic excellence, for instance—the goals must be clear and compelling to the children. “The child must value the goal,” Stocking stresses.

At first, children may require considerable external encouragement to learn the skills they need to find an activity rewarding. “Take learning to play the violin,” Stocking says. “Playing a beautiful melody can be an intense flow experience, but it will take a child many lessons and a lot of practice before he or she can make music.” Stocking suggests that parents balance external motivators, such as praise or rewards, with intrinsic motivation to help their children take up new activities. She also recommends several steps for parents to set the stage for a flow experience:

  • Help children relate activities to their goals. Sometimes children have multiple goals that they can achieve through a single activity, and parents can help them understand how to do so. For example, an hour of violin practice can help a child prepare for a successful recital while developing music appreciation.
  • Provide feedback. Parents can encourage their children to monitor themselves and thereby cultivate a sense of flow. They can talk to their children about how they are doing: “It sounds like you’re really improving on that piece!” Praise needs to be genuine and specific.
  • Help prevent distractions. Parents can make sure that their children have a quiet place to work, study, or practice. They should avoid overscheduling: moving from activity to activity makes it hard for children to become engaged in any one experience. Additionally, parents shouldn’t let their own involvement—even encouragement or guidance—become a distraction.

Finding the right level of challenge may be the hardest aspect of fostering flow. “Tasks need to be difficult enough to stretch the child’s boundaries, but not so difficult as to cause frustration,” Stocking cautions. Boredom or lack of focus on the child’s part may mean that a more challenging goal is needed. Frustration and avoidance, on the other hand, may signal that it’s time to drop to an easier level.

Finally, Stocking advises, “it’s important that children see their parents engrossed in activities. Modeling is the most important way parents teach their kids.”

—Mark Knicklebine

  • Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. HarperCollins, 1991
  • Talented Teenagers: The Roots of Success and Failure, by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (with Samuel Whalen and Kevin Rathunde). Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • Optimizing Intelligences: Thinking, Emotion, and Creativity, hosted by Peter Salovey, featuring Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi. National Professional Resources, VHS, 1998
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