Watching a red-tailed hawk glide in the air above me makes me wonder if it is experiencing the “sweet spot”, that is, reaching the point between exerting too much effort and not enough. Does the red-tailed hawk exert great amounts of energy to reach the heights, and then surrender to the air currents gliding peacefully and effortlessly while taking in the view? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about the experience of “sweet spot” calling it “flow”. That optimal place reached when the challenge perfectly matches an individual’s skill level. When these two, challenge and skill level, are aligned, Csikszentmihalyi proposes that “flow” occurs, evidenced by the individual reaching deep concentration and the “a’ha” moment for themselves.
In his book titled, Finding Flow, he states, “When the goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own. It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.” (pps. 31-32)
Shortly after returning from my Montessori training in Perugia, Italy, after being in the classroom with the children for only two months, I had the rich experience of an AMI consultation with Margot Waltuch, a long-time established AMI consultant who worked directly with Dr. Montessori. (Margot is shown on the left with Ada Montessori.) She had previously worked with Maria Antonietta Paolini, my Montessori trainer, for many years in Perugia. This was the first opportunity for someone to come and critique my classroom. I was extremely nervous and had a preconceived notion that the classroom should always be in a state of silence that would reflect the children being fully concentrating and in a state of “flow”. I had spent the morning of her observation quietly “shushing” the children and trying to get them to show her how focused and quiet they could be. When we met after her observation, I was relieved to learn from Margot, “My Dear, the children aren’t expected to work silently all the time, this just happens spontaneously for short moments throughout the day.” In this moment Margot gave me the greatest gift. She freed me from having a preconceived idea of how the classroom “should” be. I never “shushed” children again!
Over my many years as a Montessori classroom guide, I have been fortunate to often witness children in this “flow” state spontaneously throughout the day. The fact that the classroom is filled with multi-age educational materials facilitates children reaching “flow” because they can repeat work with concepts until they are satiated, and the material is mastered. This timing will always differ among various children within the same classroom. Some students need a great deal of repetition with a new concept while others grasp new concepts quickly, just being exposed once or twice.
Observing the child is key to learning how each individual person processes new information. This same technique can be applied at home by carefully observing your child after a new lesson is given. Is your child able to continue working independently with the material or is your child confused upon reaching a particular point or step? In the classroom if the child is confused at some point and shows a difficulty with a particular material, I follow-up, at a later time, with a re-presentation and observe again, always looking for the child to reach that “a’ha” moment on their own. Ultimately, with careful presentations and watchful observing, our children will ride the currents and soar confidently and at ease just like the red-tailed hawk!