Flow State Theory

Flow State Theory


Ollie tracing

Ollie had something he wanted to share on the blog:


“If you like to draw, but the pictures you want to copy are very tricky, you can trace them.  I’m making books for Toby by tracing the pictures and then sticking them to white paper and adding information and stories”.

The holy grail of education is children working in a ‘flow’ state.  The theory (first proposed by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) is that when the complexity of an activity closely matches the skill level of the person they can become totally immersed in what they are doing, and may completely lose track of time.  Even a child who is normally highly active may be seen happily and calmly spending hours on a particular activity.  If the child’s skill level is much higher than the complexity of the task requires they are a ‘relaxed’ state (in non-jargon speak, the child is bored).   When their skill levels are much lower than the task requires, the child becomes ‘anxious’.  Extremes of boredom or stress do not lead to effective learning.

This tracing, writing and book creation activity, which was Ollie’s idea from the start, has seen him spending  hours on it, even to the point of getting up early to go downstairs and work on it, and complaining when I require that we go outside and get some exercise. He has always loved to draw and make books, but was often frustrated that he couldn’t yet produce the

Ollie’s Star Wars Vehicle

highly technical pictures he wanted to, so by finding this solution he has matched his current skill level to the complexity of what he wanted to achieve.


His writing has leapt forwards too, as he is effectively setting his own copy work.  Copy work, where kids simply copy a set of words several times in order to help learn their spelling, is a tried and tested way of learning spellings.  However for many kids it is inherently boring.  When I give Ollie a list of words to copy we suffer through his assortment of sighs, huffs, fidgeting and mournful looks as he writes each word with excruciating slowness in order to make sure I am aware of his opinion that it is a hideous thing to give a child to do, writing so slowly that he forgets what he’s writing half way through and ends the word with letters from the next word on the list.

In contrast, this self directed task sees him copying out the harder words from his Star Wars Encyclopaedia and learning them without any prompting from me and without any Oscar-worthy performances from him in the role of ‘hard-done-by child suffering a Victorian education’.  Because he is in flow state, he also persists with the writing and drawing activity for far longer than I would require of him if it was a task in a work book, boosting his speed of skill acquisition and making writing, which he found hard not long ago, so enjoyable that the volume of words in his stories are rapidly increasing.  This increased ability to get his thoughts on to paper is reducing his frustration and feeding back into increased satisfaction both personally and with his work.

The example I’ve used to illustrate flow state is that of Ollie finding his own way of matching his skill level to the complexity of what he wanted to achieve, but it can occur in any activity and at any age.  For a long time I did not consider myself to be a ‘writer’, even after being published in print, because to me writing feels like playing.  I sit down at the computer for a few minutes and am regularly surprised to look up at the clock and realise two hours has disappeared.  Writing puts me into a state of flow.  Other folks get there playing an instrument, or charging up and down a rugby pitch, or whatever it is that makes time vanish in the blink of an eye.  It’s tricky to achieve this in a school setting, where the routine of a typical school day breaks time into chunks interrupted by bells, although there are plenty of excellent teachers out there who work their socks off matching tasks to the skills of their students and promoting the conditions for optimal learning in tricky conditions.

However, at home, whether as part of full time home education or in the out of school hours of a schooled child, we can try to provide opportunities for our kids to experience activities in this flow state.  A great part of that is watching our kids carefully and talking to them to see what they are interested in, then providing time and resources for them to experiment until they find out what it is that really engages them at that moment.  Get ready to take a deep breath though when, having been obsessed with something and required the provision of whatever it is they require for that particular activity, three weeks later they have moved on to the next obsession.  Kids are rather like Toad of Toad Hall in that respect. Poop poop.


  • Plutonium Sox

    16th February 2017 at 10:27 pm Reply

    This is fascinating Maz, I’ve never heard of flow state before. Interestingly, Libby started drawing a camper van the other day. She drew her van and then drew patterns all over it as she was copying what I’d done on the van I was drawing for Lia. I’ve never seen her concentrate so well or be so into an activity that involved sitting still. I guess this is the explanation for it. Thanks for asking a question I didn’t know I had!

    • admin

      23rd February 2017 at 8:36 pm Reply

      I was reminded about it during an online course I did a few weeks ago on differentiation for STEM, glad it was of interest 🙂

    • admin

      9th March 2017 at 8:31 pm Reply

      That sounds lovely. Sorry for the delayed reply, I haven’t figured out how to get this to alert me to comments so I have to scroll through and try to spot new ones!

  • Matt

    16th February 2017 at 10:28 pm Reply

    Excellent drawing.

    • admin

      23rd February 2017 at 11:05 pm Reply

      He’s so happy with his pictures 🙂

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