When I was teaching I tended to get deep into what I was doing, and time and distractions would just disappear. I’d be observing children’s play, conversations, and representation, often documenting their process, and supporting them when needed. Suddenly, the two hours of Projects and Play time would be gone, and it would be time to go outside. It felt as if time just folded up like a tesseract in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, and I lost contact with the linearity of time passing. I was loving what I was doing; it felt like play. I was in a state of Flow.

Flow as a Route to Happiness

In his 2008 book, Flow, Mihaly Csikscentmihalyi proposes that the more time one spends in Flow, the happier one will be. Flow is a route to happiness, he says.

Check out an explanation of Flow here: youtu.be/8h6IMYRoCZw

image credit: FightMediocrity

Lately, I have been wrestling with the question: How do teachers re-discover the joy in teaching in these troubled and burdensome times? I don’t think shorter hours or smaller classes or higher pay are sufficient (though they are certainly warranted and wouldn’t they be nice?). The sense of overwhelm, which leaves no room for joy, does seem to come from external demands: curriculum mandates, cultures of coercion, and constant changes in expectations driven by lack of funding. And it also arises from a misconception that education can be scripted and quantified completely independent from the protagonists in the learning process (i.e. teachers, children, and families). I wonder: If happiness arises from a state of Flow, and play often leads to a state of Flow, how can teachers enter the realm of play in the act of teaching? Can the ecstasy that Csikscentmihalyi describes in Flow coexist with external expectations and pressures? If so, how?

Listening For…

I want to propose that finding Flow and connecting to awe and imagination in the classroom has a direct relationship with what is called in “Reggio circles” Listening.  It is so much more than listening with the ears, though. Listening implies a certain openness to what might happen, much like what happens in children’s play. Teachers are accustomed to “listening for…” In traditional pedagogy, adults listen for the right answer. But what if we stop listening for the right answer and instead listen for the next profound moment, for flights of imagination, for unexpected moments of brilliance as children interact with each other in a richly prepared environment? What if we listen for possibilities instead of right answers? And, because we can’t listen and talk at the same time, we leave more space for the children’s ideas to come forth.

One Thousand Moments Of Brilliance

I used to cherish the thousand moments of brilliance I encountered every day, none of which I would have observed if I’d been listening with a particular agenda. If the answer to the question, “What are we listening for?” is “What the children are thinking,” then we are led to create environments that will give children space, time, and materials to do that thinking (in contrast to assigning an  “activity” that has one right answer or a worksheet, which have little scope for imagination, deductive thinking, creativity, or invention). We want to be amazed, we expect to be amazed, and that expectation teaches us how to set up an environment that will meet those all-important aspects of learning.

Pedagogical Documentation

So, we have the environment, and we are developing the disposition toward listening large.  To help us understand what the children are thinking, we create traces of their process, conversation, representation, and play. Those traces are appropriate to what’s going on and may be in the form of photographs, video recordings, audio recordings, and/or written notes. We study those traces, looking for compelling ideas that we can bring back to the children to see if they spark more interest and passion. We do not construct a straight line from the children’s initial idea to what we think can be learned from it. That’s where children’s research is often derailed. If we jump into our idea of where the children might go with their initial idea, we’ve abandoned the idea of research and gone right back to a “right answer” mentality. The idea is to imagine all the possibilities of where a particular research topic might go and then hold those ideas back as you continue to listen for what is compelling for the children.  If we are able to support the children to sustain engagement in an idea long enough, they will learn far more about the topic than we could have designed in a lesson.

Cycle of Pedagogical Documentation – Oken-Wright 2023

This cycle of listening, documenting, and responding to children can keep the surprise and the joy resident in the teaching process. We expect to be amazed, and we are. We feel all the emotions that play can provide.

Teaching As Play

Play is absolute. Play is the complete absorption in something that doesn’t matter to the external world, but which matters completely to you. It’s an immersion into your own interests that becomes a feeling in itself, a potent emotion. Play is a disappearance into a space of our own choosing, invisible to those outside the game. It is the pursuit of pure flow, a sandbox mind in which we can test new thoughts, new selves. It’s a form of symbolic living, a way to transpose one reality onto another and mine it for meaning. Play is a form of enchantment.
Katherine May in Enchantment, Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age, 2023

Can you see teaching in May’s description of play? Can listening for possibilities draw us into our own kind of play? If so (and I believe it is so),  we…teachers and children…might have a chance to experience Flow and the happiness that may transcend the overwhelm.