Is your kid always 'in the zone'? That's likely a mental health boost.

How becoming totally absorbed in a task can help children flourish

For seven-year-old Emme, it’s all about the dragons.

In the midst of the pandemic, Emme was bored—a sentiment she expressed freely and frequently. “Once she discovered dragons, it’s like she came to life again,” says Lizzie Goodman, a mother of two in Illinois. Emme would disappear in her room for hours, creating an encyclopedia of the creatures, full of detailed backstories and anatomical diagrams. “I’ll ask her to go upstairs and get changed, and then she’ll get sucked into this play,” Goodman laughs. “And I’ll have to pull her out and be like, ‘Come back.’”

Before her dragon discovery, Emme was likely experiencing what experts have dubbed “languishing.”  “You’re not depressed,” clarifies Jeffrey Froh, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University, “but you’re definitely not functioning optimally.” And Emme is far from alone. Michelle Harris, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York and founder of Parenting Pathfinders, says that she’s seen more kids experiencing low motivation and difficulty focusing since the start of the pandemic.

According to psychologists, people flourish when they feel engaged in life, have meaningful connections with others, and pursue goals that bring a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Unfortunately, these are the very conditions that were decimated by the pandemic, says David Shernoff, an educational psychologist at Rutgers University.

Uncertainty and fear wrought by the pandemic also contributed to kids’ languishing. “Our sense of threat and safety is just on overdrive,” Froh says, making it difficult to pursue anything challenging. And if kids are affected directly, with loved ones getting sick; or if they’re worried about parents who have to go to work, then their motivation and energy can plummet.  

“For a lot of kids, the challenges, changes, and restrictions of the last year have been really emotionally taxing,” Harris says. “It’s sapped their joy and delight.”

But as Emme discovered, there’s an antidote for languishing: flow. It’s a state of being immersed in a task or activity and has many of the hallmarks that make flourishing possible. Kids in flow are completely absorbed by what they’re doing, to the point in which they lose track of time or even physical needs like food and sleep.

“We all have an innate desire to thrive,” Froh notes. “And encouraging flow states in our children helps them pursue and reach their potential.”

The science of flow

So what’s going on in the brain of someone experiencing flow? As it turns out, quite a lot—but the picture is far from straightforward.

Charles Limb, a surgeon and neuroscientist at the University of California in San Francisco, studied the neural activity of jazz musicians while they played piano and found that “broad areas of the prefrontal cortex [associated with self-monitoring] shut down when they're improvising.” At the same time, the parts of the brain responsible for “sensory processing and motor processing seem to increase [in activity] during creative tasks,” Limb says. Similar patterns have been observed in freestyle rap artists, comedians, and caricature artists.

Put simply, the brain scans showed that when individuals were immersed in a flow activity, their self-consciousness disappeared but their awareness of the activity was heightened. A dancer in the grip of flow, for example, may not feel the ache in her muscles, but she’s hyper-attuned to the song that governs her movements.    

What might this mean for kids? Limb suspects that there are levels to flow states depending on the activity involved as well as the expertise of the person (for instance, a child who likes to draw versus a professional artist). In an ongoing study, Limb’s team examined the brain activity of musically untrained kids between the ages of 9 and 11 during improvisational play. Similar to his experiment with musicians, Limb compared the kids’ brain patterns while playing a memorized sequence versus a tune they were making up. The experimental setup was designed so that whatever note was struck, it never sounded wrong.

“The kids’ brain activity was much more muted compared to the professional musicians,” Limb says. “It raises the interesting question of how the patterns in kids related to those of trained adults.”

What is clear, however, is that “there’s a big difference in the brain when the kids go from memorizing to improvising,” or from rote exercises to activities they can become completely absorbed in. But the science continues to be refined.

From a neurochemical perspective, dopamine—which mediates learning, memory, and emotional regulation—plays an important role in flow states. “Flow really taps into the brain’s dopaminergic circuits,” or the routes through which this neurotransmitter travels in the brain, says Joydeep Bhattacharya, a professor of psychology at the University of London. He speculates that the dopaminergic circuits of people who frequently achieve flow are “slowly reshaped and molded over time.”

Regular bouts of flow, therefore, could boost both motivation to learn and the skills to manage emotions. In his research, Bhattacharya demonstrated a link between ability to slip into flow states and emotional intelligence in piano students (though he cautions the study shows correlation, not causation).

How to encourage flow in kids

As anyone who’s witnessed a child immersed in doodling or building the perfect tower can attest, “children have a natural and inherent tendency to experience flow,” according to Bhattacharya. But sometimes they need a nudge. Experts have a few tips for helping kids benefit from flow.

Find what interests them. Because intrinsic motivation is so crucial to achieving flow, it’s important to find out what your child’s passions are. “Talk to kids about what they’re interested in,” Harris advises, adding that parents should encourage kids to come up with their own ideas rather than just telling them what they need to do. Once they assume some ownership, they’re more likely to stick with the activity. For parents of younger children, “feel free to suggest ideas if kids are struggling to come up with some of their own.”

What’s considered a flow activity is highly dependent on the individual. “For kids, you have to find out what lights their fire,” Shernoff says. “The more they can reclaim these sorts of flow activities, the more they start building back motivation as well as meaning.”

Provide uninterrupted time with no distractions. We live in an era of distractions and overstuffed schedules, both of which can kill flow. “Turn off the TV, find a space with limited distractions, and let kids know that this is a time for them to just do nothing but enjoy what they’re working on,” Harris says. 

Froh agrees: “Unstructured play, and lots of it, is imperative.” For instance, Froh’s 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son are limited to two extracurricular activities to ensure they have plenty of unstructured time to pursue their interests.

Support and scaffold kids. Flow requires a tricky balance: The task needs to be difficult enough to sustain interest, but not so hard that the experience is discouraging. Parents should scaffold this balance by providing support in the beginning when kids need more help, then backing off as they gain confidence.

With Legos, for example, you might start with a kit where “you’re following a recipe and know exactly what you’re going to be building,” Shernoff says. But as your child becomes more comfortable with the basics, you can build something new together. Don’t forget to ask questions: What color will the chimney be? Does this door open in or out? But let the child lead the way.

Engaging in flow activities together is also a great way to connect with your kids, and when they feel connected to others—whether it’s family, friends, or mentors—that can also encourage flow and combat languishing. In Shernoff’s research on flow in schools, for example, he discovered that teacher and peer support led to stronger student engagement. “Sharing the flow experience with friends,” Shernoff says, “makes it meaningful and becomes a source of bonding.” And when friends and mentors provide immediate feedback, it helps kids reach (and exceed) their goals.

De-emphasize performance. When parents focus on performance or outcomes, they could inadvertently dampen kids’ joy in the activity. “You don’t have to be Mozart to play the piano, and you don’t have to be Michael Jordan to shoot hoops,” Limb says. Instead, encourage kids to engage in activities that are a little more open-ended, without a lot of steps or rules that need to be followed. Create a comic book with no thoughts about publishing, or sing along to the soundtrack of a favorite movie.

Ultimately, Limb believes that creativity is universal, though it requires training to refine. “When kids engage in these activities, they’re developing creativity in their brain,” he says. And the more kids tap into their creative nature through flow, the more likely it is that they’ll carry those skills into a productive adulthood.

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