The Art of Intentional Play: Why Getting into Flow and Optimized Learning Go Hand-in-Hand

The Art of Intentional Play: Why Getting into Flow and Optimized Learning Go Hand-in-Hand

Guest Post by Zachariah Fisher-Founder, Curriculum Development, Visionary, and Teacher at Peace Guardians.

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold." - Joseph Chilton Pearce.

Throughout time, man has attempted to transcend the limiting confines of the ordinary and enter into the realm of the sublime. These heightened states of awareness are often called "flow states" and promote a flood of feel-good chemicals firing off in the brain. Dopamine, Oxycontin, Endorphins, and Serotonin measure off the charts when brain scans are performed on participants that are tracking in high flow, what athletes call “the zone,” or musicians often call “the pocket.” Flow States are a fascinating treasure trove of wisdom that helps to unlock some of the mysteries of peak experiences and lend a hand in the discovery of the importance of, as renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell states, “following our bliss.” In this article, we will explore the benefits of these states and the clear link between Play and Flow.

In positive psychology, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In short, author Steven Kotler says, “flow states are when we feel our best and perform our best.” Beyond the intrinsic value of pure enjoyment, research has shown that when harnessed and cultivated, these states can and often do lead to altered traits. In his seminal work; Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that flow is not just a key factor of happiness, but rather the key factor to happiness. His research revealed that worldly success and acclaim in the form of money, prestige and power did not show any noticeable increase in levels of happiness. However, when observing large samples of people that regularly incorporated flow states into their daily routines, flow proved to be the strongest factor of a more joyful life. 

"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

- Mr. Rogers

In my opinion and first-hand experience, children are drawn to timeless liberated play, not to escape the real world, but to enter it. I believe the art of play is a major pillar in the house of one’s journey to optimal potential and optimal learning. When we are fully immersed in play, we transcend our normal limitations enable our limitless potential to flourish.

Neuroscience has shown that our brain waves in the prefrontal cortex slow down when tracking in high play/flow This is the part of the brain that calculates long-term planning, lateral/linear thinking, time, logistics, etc. When this key aspect of our "reality filter" slows down, we are able to become more hyper-focused and immersed in the present moment. Our sensory awareness spikes, and we, in our relaxed theta state, receive entryway into a limitless treasure trove of wisdom.

This zone is not only for premier athletes and performers. It can happen while hiking, laughing, deep breathing, rock climbing, mountain biking, writing, painting, sculpting, time in nature, knitting, crocheting, snowboarding, and on and on. This zone is equally valid and valuable to each of us in our own unique way. In short, flow in its myriad of forms, contexts, levels, and degrees is not only available to all but is the birthright of all.

Let's explore 10 reasons why supporting our children to follow their bliss, or “getting in the flow,” is essential in optimal childhood development:

1. Mastery

Children will practice what they enjoy. Whatever you practice you develop the skills to get better, and if you practice a lot, you become a master. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory has proven to be cut into exponential fractions when play/flow is a key component of that practice. Essentially, flow makes learning more fun and thus accelerates the path to mastery. The reason is that flow helps retain information from short-term holding to long-term storage, which promotes learning, memory and focus. Wisdom is best retained when it is embodied as an ingrained cellular practice, or as is often said, in your bones. Children intuitively know that through play, or getting into flow states, they can learn wisdom that simply cannot be gleaned by intellectual understanding alone.

2. Healthy Habits

Instead of turning to unhealthy addictions, flow can be a safe space with clear intention and benefits. With proper guidance, this space can be set to allow for prolonged, sustainable and healthy flow states that enrich our lives without dependency on outside forces, conditions or substances.

3. Intuition

When we do what we love, we are moving with the forces of the Universe instead of resisting, thus learning the art of trusting our intuition. By ultimately learning to trust our innate passions, we are progressing on our journey of self-discovery because it has been meticulously architected to support us.

4. Courage

Flow puts us into “the zone,” which we will need when facing our biggest challenges in life, obstacles, or innermost cave/abyss, as Campbell describes it. When we look at our deepest fears/obstacles through the lens of limited perception or false identification with ego, our fears/obstacles appear to our consciousness as often insurmountable. This is why flow is so crucial in transcending limited parts of the mind and entering into expansive/limitless new viewpoints. From this lens, our fears and obstacles that once seemed so daunting loosen their grip on our psyche and we can “move confidently in the direction of our dreams.” - Henry David Thoreau

5. Purpose

Our purpose is often rooted deeper than our rational mind. It is at the very foundation of our inner-self. The journey to discover our inner-self and ultimately share it with the world is the center is of utmost importance. By allowing for timeless play, children are given the optimal environment to draw forth their most optimal self-directed path towards living their purpose.

6. Rhythm

The way of the world is often very robotic and one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter rhythms geared for industrial productivity. Nature flows in sacred geometrical patterns of regeneration and connectivity. Plants, animals, and bodies of water flow with their own instinctual rhythm and patterns. This rhythm is essential to find within ourselves because our purpose exists beyond the shackles of robotic linear pattern thinking. Whether it’s dance, drumming, singing, rapping, art, sports, etc., finding our natural rhythm through flow is essential in the self-discovery process.

7. Getting out of comfort zones

The enjoyment factor of flow is so high it is considered to be the single most addictive feeling in the world. When we enjoy an activity or state so much, it provides an incentive to do that activity over and over again. Flow experiences can be intentionally molded as tools for getting out of comfort zones because the rewards of the experience outweigh the fear of staying comfortable.

8. Self-rewarding passion

Instead of searching for extrinsic motivation, flow is intrinsically rewarding, which helps us to enjoy the journey and not obsess over the destination as the only measurement of success.

9. Quieting our inner-critic

Neuroscience research shows that flow states shut down the part of our brain that manages lateral thinking (past, present, future) as well as the “inner critic”.

By experiencing prolonged states of STER (Selfless, Timeless, Effortless, Richness) we free ourselves from the shackles of critique and open ourselves up into an infinite world of possibilities.

10. Emotional Alchemy

In Ayman Sawaf’s neuroscience research known as “Drops of Joy,” the results show that joy brings our emotions into their higher octaves. By adding a drop of joy to anger, it turns into courage, another drop of joy and it turns into passion. Same with fear, by adding a drop of joy to fear, it raises to concern, another drop, compassion. So the next time your child gets angry or scared, watch how inviting their joy raises the frequency.

*Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series that will focus on practical ways to incorporate intentional play in both your life and your child’s life as a living, breathing practice.

Peace Guardians programs are offered to a variety of Homeschool communities throughout Southern California. The class focus and objectives are:

Mindfulness, fitness, cooperative games, play-based learning, art, music, creative expression, and physical education.

Mondays 1:30-2:45 PM Ages 5-8

Fox Hills Park, Culver City

Wednesdays 12:15-1:30 PM Ages 5-8

Woodland Hills Rec. Center, Woodland Hills

Wednesdays 1:45-3:00 PM Ages 9-13

Woodland Hills Rec. Center, Woodland Hills

Please contact info@peaceguardians.org to receive your first class for FREE. They are open to creating more classes in other areas.