“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’. 

If you have time to observe a child or group of young children playing, and I mean really playing, you will notice the world melt away from them. 

Children will take on characters and play out wildly imaginative scenarios as if they were happening in real life. You can observe a full spectrum of emotions being explored while the child is in full control of the parameters that define the reality of their play. Imaginary conversations go back and forth between imaginary characters. Arguments erupt and are settled between seemingly non-existent participants. Uninterrupted, this play can last much longer than each child’s supposed attention span.

Research has been done on the benefits of self-motivated imaginary play. At Sunflower, our experience is this type of play bolsters self regulation, conflict resolution, and creativity. Deep imaginative play affords children a safe space to explore an ever-changing mysterious world.

A truly amazing part of deep and focused play is how easily children slip into this play flow. Their ability to get absolutely lost in play is truly admirable.

I’ve observed that a hands-off approach tends to lead to more of this deep play. The less involved an adult is with the steps leading up to play, the more self-directed and orchestrated the play will be.

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a child what they need and how they’re going to get it: “We need the big blocks in the secret garden,” a boy may say. “How can you get them there?” I would reply.

Sure, I can carry six big blocks at a time, and he may only be able to carry one, but the work, problem solving, and ultimate reward of transporting those blocks means he’s connected to them in a deeper way than if I carry a stack for him.

This hands-off approach allows the child to depend on an adult less and transition into a deep flow of play easier. He will play within his physical and emotional limitations, and ultimately expand those limitations.

© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photos © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012