Flow activities in learning environments

I was having a conversation recently with someone about how we can switch our minds off and have no thoughts running through our head. I mentioned that I’d taught myself how to crochet and have found this is the only activity that quiets my mind. We discussed how this is deemed a flow activity – an activity that, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi requires “deep concentration, an optimal balance of skill and challenge, and a sense of control and satisfaction”. I explained how I felt when I crocheted; that I’m completely engrossed in what I’m doing, I don’t think about anything but the stitches, I work towards a goal and that I do indeed get a great deal of satisfaction from it (as does everyone else who benefits from the end result of scarves, beanies, blankets etc).

Most of us are familiar with the concept of mindfulness (something that still eludes me!) and there are some similarities with the concept of flow.  Like mindfulness you can enter into a state of mind where you, lose track of time, are engrossed in what you’re doing and don’t consciously think about yourself. However, the big difference is flow activities involve working towards a goal, whereas mindfulness doesn’t. 

Flow doesn’t have to be solely about personal activities; it can be experienced in professional activities too. The activity you’re doing brings about a loss of self-consciousness due to being completely absorbed in the activity, whether it be intellectual, professional or physical. For a flow state to occur, the activity must be seen as voluntary, enjoyable and therefore intrinsically motivating, it must require a skill and be challenging with clear goals towards success.

What are flow activities?

Let’s not confuse flow activities and leisure activities. We might label a physical flow activity as a leisure activity, however activities such as visiting family or friends, conversation or catching up for a coffee with friends, aren’t flow activities. Keep in mind a flow activity is intrinsically motivating and must require a skill. There are a variety of different activities that require some sort of action and may be of benefit to find your flow and can include:

  • Physical activities such as yoga, dance, martial arts, sports
  • Outdoor challenges and activities like hiking, horse riding or gardening
  • Playing, writing or making music
  • Arts such as painting, pottery, sculpture, photography, woodworking
  • Working with animals
  • Cooking and baking
  • Creative activities like scrap booking, sewing, knitting, crochet, cross stitch

And of course, hopefully what you do for work can be included in this list as a professional flow activity.

One of the things to remember is achieving flow will differ for each of us; you therefore can’t force activities on individuals. Again, intrinsic motivation is a key factor.

How could we bring flow activities into learning events?

Remember, a flow activity involves the development of a skill over time and helps someone progress towards a goal. It may be a challenge to completely introduce flow activities into a learning environment, however it may be possible for us as facilitators to encourage exposure to activities. We can also be mindful of what our learners currently do to find their flow – asking them to share during introductions or an icebreaker might be a good way to find out.

The ideas below are just that – ideas. They’re not tried and tested, but are ways of thinking about (as facilitators of learning) how we can encourage our learners to find their flow, and of course happiness).

The mandatory physical activity

We’ve been on courses where mandatory participation in activities such as a walk or outdoor challenge is required. Whilst they may be used for teamwork or group development, and a good way to generate some energy and promote health, from a flow perspective, they may not work for everyone and we should be mindful of individual learner needs. We may have learners in a program that welcome the opportunity to participate in these types of activities as they are seeking an opportunity to find their flow, however we may need to allow participation in a flexible manner. For example:

  • the brisk walker who walks regularly and is trying to achieve a time related goal may want to stride ahead of a group
  • a slow walker who’s taking in their surroundings and is finding their happiness in the joy of where they are, losing themselves in the sights, sounds and smells
  • the learner who doesn’t want to participate in a physical activity, but understands what you’re trying to achieve and would prefer to spend the time doing their preferred flow activity

We may find that a conversation about the nature of the activity, purpose and flexible participation gives learners the permission needed to engage in the activity as needed. By changing the conversation and focusing learners on the use of the activity to find flow, might we see a difference in their participation?

The above isn’t just limited to physical activity. It may be the creative activities you use, or any of the other types of activities listed earlier. Pause and reflect on what types of activities you use in a learning environment; think about your goals and the needs of learners.

“Flow stations”

Many of us have incorporated items into a learning environment that help tactile learners or those who fidget. I’ve been in programs where there are a variety of objects placed on tables to help learners concentrate and engage. This can help still learners, however it may be beneficial to provide opportunities to expose learners to different activities that may help them find their flow, and therefore happiness.

Imagine (for example) you have a room set up with various flow activity stations around the room. There are items laid out for creative and art flow activities, cue cards with physical and outdoor challenges written on them, laptops and coding challenges, balls of yarn and knitting needles, yoga mats, musical instruments and more. Each of the stations has been chosen to reflect the broadness of activities that might help your learners with flow.

This may all sound a little left of centre, but it could be a good way to allow learners to engage with activity. Allocate some time for them to explore the stations, have a go at the activity and see what they like. If there are learners within the group with particular skills in activities, perhaps they could act as coaches at the station and help with skill development. Learners will need clarity on the purpose of the stations; this could be achieved by having a conversation about exploring the stations and thinking about what activities they enjoyed, why, whether they could see themselves doing it again and if they developed any skill (no matter how small).

Free flow time

It doesn’t have to be too hard to incorporate some flow into the learning environment. Allowing some structured time on a program agenda for learners to engage in their flow activity may be a great way to incorporate it into their learning environment. Asking learners to bring with them the necessary materials beforehand will help enormously. Time can be allocated, during the program or at the end of a day, and learners could share what they’re going to focus on for that time – it may be a useful way of helping other learners find activities if they don’t have one. 

Here’s an example to consider. Before a learning program, the group receives details of what they should bring. It includes a description about bringing along whatever materials are needed for their personal flow activity (your description may need to be specific and ensure learners don’t forget). When they come to the program they can see time allocated for participation in their personal activity choice. Before the time commences each learner shares what they’re going to do and where they will go to do it. They’re encouraged to buddy if there are people doing a similar activity. If it’s a physical activity, then they’re asked to commit to their challenge – what is it they plan to achieve in the time allocated? Will they do 10 yoga poses, or run a certain distance? Upon conclusion of the time, the group come back together and each learner shares what they did; taking it one step further, we could ask them how they feel at the end of it.

What might it mean for facilitators/trainers?

Let’s now think about ourselves for a moment. As facilitators or trainers, shouldn’t we also be trying to achieve a state of flow? There is evidence from studies in secondary education to suggest that teachers who experience flow are more adept at applying personal and organisational resources. This might mean a greater sense of one’s competency in their work, fostering of a supportive work environment and clearer professional goals. The significant potential follow-on benefit has been identified as leading to enriched learning environments for learners. As facilitators, trainers or educators, we stand to gain a lot from finding our own flow activities and embracing them.

We can create more positive and supportive environments for our learners and a greater confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Neither of which are bad for our learners.

What activities do you do to bring about a state of flow and happiness?

Here’s the original Ted Talk from 2004: Flow, the secret to happiness.


4 thoughts on “Flow activities in learning environments

    1. Thanks Bill. Glad this little post has helped you see something different. I feel theres great benefits for facilitators who tap into learners’ flow activities – hopefully happier, productive and engaged learners.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s