How to Help Kids Experience Flow

4 min read
Character Lab, used with permission

Character Lab, used with permission

David Melnikoff, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, talked to us about how to use curiosity to cultivate flow. Here are a few highlights:

What does it mean to be in flow, and how does that relate to curiosity?

Being in flow means you’re so fully absorbed in pursuing a goal that you don’t need any self-discipline to stay the course. Usually, we think that goal pursuit requires effort, but when you’re in flow, the opposite is true: It’s hard to stop.

For example, a kid playing a video game can be in flow—they’re so engrossed that it’s a struggle to pull them away. And that’s because they want to satisfy their curiosity. What will happen next in the game? Will they reach the next level?

How is the concept of flow useful for young people?

When young people feel like they have some control over the situation through their actions, that will lead to a greater feeling of flow. In contrast, flow is unlikely if they feel like their future is a foregone conclusion. So, as an example, flow is unlikely if a student thinks they’re going to do badly no matter how much they study. And flow is unlikely, too, if the course is so easy for them that they’ll do well even if they don’t work hard.

How can parents and teachers help kids experience flow to do well in school?

You can help them make school feel more like a game. Many games have a wide range of outcomes. In Tetris, for instance, players can score anywhere from zero to a million points. But in the classroom, students often see just five possible outcomes—A, B, C, D, and F—leaving them a lot less curious than in a video game about how well they’ll do

You can fix this by helping kids focus on their scores instead of on letter grades and reward performance that way, too. So, they might get a 70 on one quiz and a 73 on the next. Those are both C’s, but focusing on the number can make them more curious about how they’ll do on the next assignment—can they keep improving their score?

How else can students make school feel more like a game?

Many video games start out very difficult—the player fails over and over again, but they keep trying anyway. That’s because players see the failure as part of the larger game. Students can use similar tricks to transform something very difficult into something that’s flow-inducing anyway. For example, they can try to succeed in a class in as few attempts as possible. If they succeed on their first attempt, they’ll get a really big reward. The second attempt, slightly smaller. Now, the game isn’t that they have to get an A on this exam. It’s how many tries it will take before they reach their goal.

What do people often get wrong about flow?

People often think you only get into flow when you’re doing something without getting any external rewards—an artist working on a painting or an athlete playing their favorite sport for hours. But that’s not always true. Think about a slot machine at a casino. People keep pulling that arm down, but they wouldn’t do it without the chance of getting a prize.

I think it’s OK for students to get rewards for doing well. Sure, it’s wonderful when they’re deeply interested in a project or topic at school, working hard without outside encouragement. But external rewards that propel young people to reach goals they care about will help them find the internal motivation that everyone wants to have.

This article also appears on Character Lab.

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