Montessori and the “Flow Experience”

She said, “You know, it’s interesting how peaceful this classroom is, even without a teacher directing the group.” I was standing next to a potential parent yesterday morning, touring Cornerstone, and looking in on a Primary classroom during their morning work period.  “I was observing at my son’s school last week, and even though it was very teacher dominated, the result was…..”, she paused, then shrugged,  …chaos.”
We walked on, and as we perambulated, I explained how a prepared Montessori environment, meeting children where they are developmentally, inculcates the quiet focus, the engagement,  and the level of involvement that she had noticed. In Montessori circles, we even have a nickname –  “Montessori Buzz” to describe this purposeful activity reminiscent of a hive. It’s a dynamic phenomenon to see. There is movement and noise, not attributes we would necessarily assign to our own pre-school and elementary experience.  But the movement is with purpose and the “noise” is a murmur, the sound of quiet conversation, never to the point of being a distraction.  The children have developed such a strong measure of concentration, such a heightened focus as to lose themselves in an activity.
This same observation can be made at any quality Montessori environment, a daily occurrence that becomes commonplace as a result of its repetition.  And yet it is not limited to the classroom nor to the age of the individual.  As adults, if we are fortunate, we too can find ourselves in situations where this same level of immersion supersedes our sense of time and insulates us from distraction.  If you’ve ever felt “in the zone” while playing a musical instrument, involved in a sport, dancing, creating art, etc.. you know this feeling.  While the experience is part of our humanity, it was not until the 1980’s and 90’s that the effect became a topic of research, by the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who gave the name “flow” to this highly focused mental state.

“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In our last newsletter, we introduced the idea of the “flow experience”, a concept developed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  The phrase refers to the phenomenon sometimes referred to as being “in the zone”.  Common to athletes and artists, it is easy to see how it can be applied to a child working in a Montessori environment, and, in fact, has been the subject of research investigating that very relationship.  While the term is inherently subjective (it is after all a feeling), a template of traits has been developed.  We can see how they manifest themselves in the classroom.
The most clearly identified characteristic of the flow experience is the presence of intense and focused concentration on the present moment. The child’s attention is held by the material in front of them and they not distracted by the activities of others. His or her thoughts don’t wander. Another would be the merging of action and awareness. This simply refers to a unity of movement with perception; the child making bead-bar exchanges with the Checkerboard (for multiplication) is not separating the two.  A child experiencing flow, experiences a loss of reflective self-consciousness. He or she are not concerned with gauging success or failure. Flow brings with it a sense of personal control over the situation or activity.  The child understands the task, the Montessori material, and how to proceed.  There exists a distortion of temporal experience, the passage of time is harder to gauge.  In fact, the expression concerning how time flies could be amended to read, “Time flies when you’re having flow”.  The child is surprised to find how late in the morning it has become, and he or she has been working on a timeline, or Puzzle Maps, or the Pink Tower. There is no need for a grade, or a gold star, let alone praise from an adult. While in a flow experience the activity is intrinsically rewarding.