The best learning goes with the flow: The work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Written by: Neil Henty | Published:
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Early years learning pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi passed away last year. Known as the father of ‘flow’, his theories of pupil engagement are crucial. Neil Henty looks at how his work can help us to promote optimal experiences in the classroom

The worlds of education and psychology said goodbye to one of its leading lights in October, following the death of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Sometimes referred to as the father of “flow”, Mike as he liked to be known is also considered a pioneer of early years learning. But how many people working in education really know the flow theory and why it is so relevant to learning?

Engagement is the key. The whole idea of flow is to transport someone to a state of focused contentment so that they are “caught in the flow” of the task they are performing. Although flow theory has obvious application to children’s learning, as we will see it applies to virtually any occupation, including teaching.

His obituary in the New York Times (Risen, 2021) reveals a widespread influence that many would envy: “Jimmy Johnson, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, cited Dr Csikszentmihalyi’s work as a critical piece in his preparation for the team’s victory in the 1993 Super Bowl.

“Newt Gingrich sang its praises; so did Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who once boasted that half his cabinet was reading it. A 2004 TED Talk by Csikszentmihalyi has been viewed nearly seven million times.”

But first, let’s go back to the start. Who was Csikszentmihalyi and where did “flow” come from?

The state of flow

He became interested in happiness and contentment as a reaction to being a prisoner during the Second World War. His career path was set after he attended a Carl Jung lecture and travelled to the USA to study psychology at the University of Chicago.

He concluded that happiness was an internal state, not an external one, and that a person’s happiness is not a rigid, unchanging state, but that we all have control over it and can develop it through effort. Through his research, he found that artists, athletes and musicians experience optimal performance levels when they felt their work flowed out of them. From this, he first coined the phrase “flow state” and made the link between creativity and productivity, noting that a state of flow is essential to a productive employee – and also for a contented one.

His dissertation on painters added further confirmation. He noted how they almost universally talked about the process of painting rather than the final piece of art. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, he noted his astonishment that a diverse group of people, including chess players, dancers and rock climbers all spoke in the same terms. You can see how a state of flow would interest an educator, linking as it does, happiness, creativity and productivity.

Flow in the classroom

His theory was popularised by his book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Published in 1990, he defines flow as a state “in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.

Can you see the children in your class immersed in a similar state? Csikszentmihalyi defined eight characteristics of flow:

  • Complete concentration on the task.
  • Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback.
  • Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down).
  • The experience is intrinsically rewarding.
  • Effortlessness and ease.
  • There is a balance between challenge and skills.
  • Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination.
  • There is a feeling of control over the task.

Everyone experiences flow, or at least they can, no matter their age, sex, religion, background, but it can differ from person to person, and so in an educational setting it is important to remember that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach if you are to help children to achieve it.

But what is flow, exactly? Csikszentmihalyi (1990) said: “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times ... The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

When people talk of being “in the zone”, they are essentially experiencing a state of flow. But it also reveals the challenge in helping children to achieve flow in schools. Nakamura et al (2009) described it thus: “Inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.” If the challenge is bigger than the child’s skills, they can become anxious or stressed which will negatively affect learning; equally, if the challenge is too low for them, it can result in boredom and that is rarely an effective state in which learning can occur. In an interview with the New York Times in 1986, Csikszentmihalyi stated: “Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety.”

You can see the links with Zygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory and with scaffolding. Indeed, his work “tunes beautifully with Ferre Laevers and the Leuven Scales”, explained Dr Sue Allingham, an experienced early years consultant, author and trainer.

She told me: “The eight characteristics of flow perfectly reflect the characteristics of effective teaching and learning (as found in the EYFS framework) too. Without understanding wellbeing, involvement and flow we are missing a huge pedagogical jigsaw piece.”

In his 2021 article, Eight ways to create flow according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Mike Oppland suggests that the experience of flow is a key aspect of self-actualisation, the highest level of Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs: “Since it is intrinsically rewarding, the more you practise it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.”

There is an obvious link to motivation, but also to how stimulating and interesting you can make learning challenges, and vice-versa. As Dietz (2022) relates, our best moments are not those of passive pleasure but those when we feel exhilarated by achievement – when we are in a state of flow.

Although beyond the scope of this article and this publication, Dietz also relates a 1980s study by Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues that looked at why some teenagers were able to develop their talents while others simply gave up (the study’s findings were published in 1997 in Talented Teens: The roots of success and failure).

It led the authors to propose three steps for promoting optimal experiences in classrooms. Not only do these recommendations transcend the teenage educational experience, they offer much food for thought for teachers, professional development and primary school leadership teams:

Three recommendations

First, the most influential teachers were found to be those who continue to nurture their interest in their subjects and do not take their ability to convey that enthusiasm for granted. Learning was found to flourish where the cultivation of passionate interest was a primary educational goal.

Second, attention should be paid to “conditions that enhance the experience of maximum rewards”. Everything should be done to minimise the impact of rules, exams and procedures and to focus on the inherent satisfaction of learning.

And third, teachers must read the shifting needs of learners. The flow state is not a static one: once a skill has been mastered it is necessary to add more complexity if the student is not to become bored – there must always be a close fit between challenges and skills. The teacher’s sense of timing and pace, of when to intervene and when to hold back, is therefore crucial. There must be freedom wherever possible for the student to control the process, but teachers must also draw on their experience to channel students’ attention.

The above is cited from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow by Charles Dietz (2022).

Not an easy state to achieve

Flow is not an easy state to achieve and distractions will interfere with it or stop it from happening in the first place. In 2014, Csikszentmihalyi suggested bringing curricula alive by making them relatable to real life and rooting them in the now. A teacher needs to be attentive to the child’s needs and interests, they need to show enthusiasm and excitement for learning. He also suggested the following, which is adapted from The State of Flow while Learning by Kriti Khare (2018):

  • Teach the students to be able to give feedback to themselves – feedback is an important aspect of flow.
  • Let the students become the teachers – often explaining or describing something to someone else can be exciting and engaging because it gets us thinking about how we learned it ourselves.
  • Minimise distractions – not just environmental ones, but by creating safe learning spaces where children feel accepted and can work steadily towards clear, well-defined goals.

You can see how the flow state relates to much of the pedagogical underpinning of quality early years and foundation stage practice. Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education emphasised flow as an important part of the development process of the child. According to Khare (2018): “She believed that deep concentration and flow were at the heart of education and lifelong development.”

You can also see how flow underpins other early learning philosophies. For example, the non-passive, child-led learning environments of the Reggio Emilia approach. The challenge as a teacher and as a school is to make learning engaging and challenging and to ensure children’s interests are valued and explored.

As Kathryn Solly, an experienced early years practitioner and consultation, points out, “flow” is the moment of optimal active learning and thus an important part of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

She said: “For young children, it’s about being totally engrossed in a state of flow which is more likely in an emotionally safe environment, indoors and out. Their levels of happiness and engagement shift between adult-led learning and when they are free to be in control of their own play/learning, whether alone or with others.

“The pace, depth and breadth of involvement are all in their remit. You will often see a child’s tongue sticking out of their mouth as they balance the focus of skills and challenge, to the focus on what really matters to them ‘in’ that moment. They are self-motivated and challenged by being the author and illustrator of their own goals. This may appear effortless but time and space join together for them as they really learn. Flow is a natural partner to the Unique Child, Enabling Environments and the other essential Characteristics of Effective Learning which should underpin provision during the Reception year.”

The role of feedback

Feedback is really important in children’s learning and development. Ask yourself why children seem so engrossed in computer games, for example? It is because they are receiving constant feedback for their actions while developing their skills, engrossed in the challenges they face. The challenge for schools is how to create a similar connection to learning.

Ms Solly defines the adult role in education settings: “For adults, our role is to set high but achievable expectations, tailored to a child’s individual abilities and strengths. We must provide safe and supportive environments which foster a sense of wellbeing and belonging. This environment allows a child to explore and challenge themselves appropriately, and to immerse themselves in play. When children feel safe, their brains relax, cortisol decreases and they are calmer.

“Adults ideally should develop reflective practice in order to really make the best decisions for interactions and interventions within those environments in order to achieve the right moment to intervene. It’s not all about providing resources that we know children will like but being open to each child organically finding their own challenge through their self-initiated play.

“Flow is an important component of creativity and wellbeing. Indeed, it can be described as self-actualisation as it is intrinsically rewarding – the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.”


Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow is an important theory of learning and one that all teachers, educators and curriculum designers should know. It will not give you a fixed set of instructions to follow that will result in powerful and lasting understanding and learning for children, but its eight characteristics act as a guide or measure for what goes on in your classroom and how you are engaging with children. The characteristics of flow relate to all of the major theories of early learning, but more than that, they can underpin learning and how to create the best learning environments at all stages of education.

  • Neil Henty writes about early years education for Headteacher Update. He is an education writer, the former editor of Early Years Educator and Childcare – sister magazines to Headteacher Update. He was formerly an advisory board member of early years training organisation, NEYTCO. Read his previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, Harper & Row, January 1990.
  • Dietz: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow, Teaching Expertise, article accessed January 2022:
  • Maslow: A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50 (4), pp370-396:
  • Khare: The State of Flow while Learning, April 2018:
  • Oppland: 8 ways to create flow according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Positive Psychology, August 2021:
  • Risen: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of ‘Flow,dies at 87, New York Times, October 2021:

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