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Flow – Why Playing Is the Best Way to Learn

Flow. It conjures up images of air flow, the flow of water, hair flowing in the wind.

Yet, it is also an apt description in psychology for a state of mind we constantly aspire to. Though it is not widely known, flow proves psychologically that playing games is one of the best ways of learning things.

What is Flow?

Flow refers to the ideal mental state in which we perform tasks. When we experience flow, we become absorbed by the activity. Time becomes dilated; we feel as though a minute has passed when in fact it is an hour. We feel focused, resolute, a sense of joy and satisfaction upon completing it.

Sounds familiar? Simply, it is when we are experiencing a ‘hot streak’, being ‘in the zone’ or why time flies when we do something we love.

Flow was first discovered by psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in 1975. Over the years, it gained increasing popularity as more people relate to it. Since then, it has become an influential term in psychology, educational theory, organisational theory and even management.

The truth is, flow is not unique. It has been recognized time and again throughout history and in different locations. For instance, Wikipedia states that flow has been used in many Asian religions. In Buddhism and Taoism, ancient teachings refer to wu wei or action of inaction, while in Hinduism, the Bhagavad-Gita alludes to a similar mental thinking.

States of Mind

According to Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi (1989), there are 6 factors that contribute to achieving flow.

- Intense and focused concentration at that present moment

- Merging of action and awareness

- A loss of reflective self-consciousness

- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity

- Distortion of time

- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Later studies added to these. For instance, psychologist Cherry says that there are 3 other key factors, namely:

- Immediate feedback

- Feeling that you have the potential to succeed

- Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Another study by Schaffer (2013) presented 7 conditions required to enter a state of flow. As we approach a task, we ought to:

- Know what to do

- Know how to do it

- Know how well you are doing

- Know where to go

- Have high perceived challenges

- Have high perceived skills

- Have freedom from distractions

All in all, flow is best summed up as having these requirements. These mental states allows us to have the most enjoyable experience when performing the task.

- Be involved in an activity with goals and progress that are clearly visible. This helps to create direction and structure.

- Feedback should be clear, immediate and direct. This allows us to have a clear sense of how we are doing. We can then adjust our work accordingly to achieve the desired performance.

- There must be a balance between difficulty and ability to complete the task. You should feel that while it is a challenge, it is still something that can be completed, instead of being impossible.

In essence, we see a satisfyingly challenging task. We believe we are skillful enough to build it. We are motivated to work hard and persevere on. We see some feedback from us completing a part of it. We are spurred by our success, becoming more motivated.

Finally, at the end of it, we gain high levels of satisfaction and gratification from our accomplishment. We look back at wondrous surprise at how we have spent the whole afternoon playing with it, while simultaneously improving our concentration and cognitive abilities.

Flowing Through Educational Games

Let us take a closer look at how flow relates to educational games and learning. Looking at the states of flow, we see that learning games fulfill many of the requirements of flow.

Focus and concentration while performing the task

The Space Race Ace requires a high degree of concentration to build the track correctly in a pleasing way. It is easy for children to lose concentration, but they are motivated by every portion that they finish.

A sense of personal agency over the activity

Especially prevalent among children, they intuitively understand that there is a big world out there and they have little control over it. Educational games like the Solaris Solar Kit comes with detailed instructions and modular pieces, allowing them to build and experiment while not overwhelming them with details.

Immediate feedback

Most educational games provide some form of instant feedback. For instance, when the Balance Tower topples, children will know that they have made a mistake immediately. Compare this to tests which have (very) delayed feedback.

Have high perceived challenge and skills

Perhaps more so than any other learning methods, educational games provide a healthy balance of challenge and skill. The games are carefully designed and playtested.

Also, one advantage games have is that you can modify the challenge easily. Ad hoc vocabulary games are flexible; you can give the other player a chance if their skill is weaker, while ramping the challenge up when they get better at it.

Group Flow

Flow is important is social psychology and sociology too. Group flow is a form of positive feedback, where flow achieved by one person is induced into another and another, until the entire group enters flow.

Groups become more cohesive, cooperative, argue less, work faster and achieve greater results. We have all seen group flow when an orchestra plays as one soul, or when a sports team appear to be psychic.

This form of group learning can be achieved through games as well. Many organizations are using serious games or learning games for employees’ training and motivation. With group flow, the team’s positive energy bounces off each other and better results are achieved.

Within your work team or family, you can try some simple educational games to achieve group flow. Games like Balance Chairs create a positive atmosphere and helps to bond groups. This positive attitude cannot be understated as it can be sustained even through more serious tasks.

Master of Flow

We hope you see the value of fun games in aiding education and development now.

Flow induces the belief that we are capable of overcoming great challenges. We are more motivated and persevere at the task. In doing so, we build on a small success to achieve greater successes.

Hence, playing allows us to achieve flow more easily. In doing so, we learn more and are motivated to play more, and learn more, and play more, and… You get the idea!

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