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Nurturing a Creative Pedagogy

Everyday creativity through a flow state

Milica Atanackovic
Training and Practice Manager, Early Childhood Ireland

Creativity involves deep exploration and practical skills. It also requires a high level of focus and critical thinking. For teachers, the goal is to create conditions where creativity can begin. Many learning and care settings hinder the conditions required for children to enter a state of flow. Children must be given the opportunity and conditions to move into this state.

“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”. —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

Ken Robinson defines creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’, and emphasises imagination and innovation as being vital components. Without imagination, creativity is not tested, and without innovation, creativity is not practised. Robinson describes creativity as a possibility in all areas of human life; it is a natural energy in all humans, but, as Corita Kent said, it can remain too often in a ‘seed state’. The seed must be given the right conditions to grow, allowing it to develop creative powers, increasing skills, knowledge, and ideas.

Creativity involves a deep level of exploration and practical skills. It also requires a high level of focus and critical thinking. For teachers, the goal is to create conditions where creativity can begin. When children are motivated to love learning, their creative mastery flourishes.

Young children have a natural predisposition towards play, creativity, collaboration, and enquiry. Creativity is at the heart of childhood and learning. However, to nurture a pedagogy of creativity in early learning and care settings, a shift is required: from teacher direction to transformational teaching. This means the teacher’s role in early learning and care settings is to support children as they make meaning of the world around them through enquiry, shared learning, and the community.

Research now tells us that children are rich in competence and open to all kinds of possibilities. They have a deep capacity for learning and complexity. Too often, however, learning is interrupted by the teacher through instruction. Alison Gopnik, one of the leading cognitive scientists of our time, tells us that direct instruction limits children’s possibilities. Through play, children make their own discoveries and are emerged deeply in creativeness. Gopnik refers to childhood as the ‘research department’.

Children immersed in an activity can consistently be observed in a state of ‘flow’. This state of mind and body continues to satisfy throughout the stages and ages of life. Gopnik writes that ‘successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults’. To be in a state of flow is to be totally absorbed, and completely unaware of what’s going on around. Time evaporates, and there is a drive to remain immersed in the activity. In such conditions of physical and mental synchrony, creative processes are more likely to develop. It is energising, with an overall sense of serenity.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is famous for his theory of flow, which he described as:

“the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4)

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory is evidenced when young children are given the time and opportunity for uninterrupted play, exploration, and possibilities. Children experience and exhibit intensity and enjoyment in these moments. But to be in a state of flow requires space and time, as it is fundamentally connected to an emotional state of being. Csikszentmihalyi described the feeling of flow as:

  1. completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated
  2. a sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality
  3. great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing
  4. knowing that the activity is doable – that skills are adequate to the task
  5. a sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
  6. timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present
  7. intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

As Vialle and Botticchio (2009) highlight, Csikszentmihalyi’s model of creativity raised the question: Where is creativity?, making the connection between people and their sociocultural contexts. Csikszentmihalyi also made a distinction between two types of creativity. Little-c creativity is in the everyday; it is what makes us human. Big-C Creativity relates to an area and to innovators or inventors in that area; it has a significant impact on our lives. Both are unique, but they are also interconnected, and big-C Creativity can influence little-c creativity.

Many learning and care settings hinder the conditions required for children to enter a flow state. Too many daily transitions, for example, can significantly impede conditions for flow. In practice, learning conditions make children transition from activities in very short time frames. Daily routines may also move children out of environments when they are experiencing joyful play moments. Children may experience time constraints which give them insufficient time to complete or immerse themselves in concepts and ideas.

When teachers observe children engaged in play, generating play ideas, and displaying high levels of concentration, they must consider how to maximise time for extended play and enquiry. The experience and facilitation of flow in learning settings and everyday situations is a factor of creativity. When children are given the opportunity and conditions to move into a state of flow, they are more driven to recreate these practices.

Early Learning and Care settings are environments where rich observation and innovation can develop. Teachers must embed ongoing reflective thinking, such as:

  • Does this environment enrich experiences?
  • Does it create missed opportunities or nurture creative opportunities?
  • Does it deepen knowledge, enhance skills, and allow for children to express themselves?
  • Does it create shared learning experiences?
  • Do we interrupt children?
  • What techniques are children learning, what are they solving or expressing, and do they need to think?
  • How are you choosing materials, and are they available every day?
  • Are the materials challenging and arranged thoughtfully?

The teacher aims to promote intrinsic motivation to generate a flow state. It can happen through a curriculum rich in child-led opportunities, based on the needs and interests of the individual child and the group. Flow is observed when the competent child is playing without thinking and with joy. However, the group dynamics in Early Learning and Care settings should allow for children to ‘flow together’. This form of flow can provoke reciprocal happiness and immense shared satisfaction – it is arguably the most meaningful form of flow.

For babies, flow can be routinely observed through a fixation on the movement of an object, being drawn to light, and connections made with their own body. When a baby concentrates and is unaware of what is happening around them, they are absorbed and in flow. To encourage flow in older children, teachers can use questioning, problem-solving, and supporting self-motivation when children are engaged in activities. Children need time to explore, think, and imagine; this is where they move into a state of flow.

In Early Learning and Care environments, children need to be encouraged to explore their worlds through a variety of materials and activities and with their peers. As Gerhardt (2015) tells us, the brain is built through actual experiences; creativity does not develop in isolation, and children need rich experiences to express themselves and make sense of their ideas and thoughts. Encouraging a child’s creativity, and welcoming and responding thoughtfully and respectfully, can lead children to feel immense pride. This leads to unexpected surprises and extended ongoing investigations.

The aim for teachers is to develop environments and experiences that extend beyond one-off and time-dependent activities. Children need experiences that can be repeated and returned to, that lend themselves to ongoing involvement. For example, loose parts, open-ended materials, and natural elements like twigs, leaves, clay, paper, and wooden blocks all promote endless opportunities.

The ongoing nature of creative spaces and experiences ensures that children’s engagement becomes deeper and richer. As Vygotsky so importantly highlighted, creativity is not in the results: it is a ‘product of creation’. This requires that teachers be tuned in to creative learning. The quality of a setting does not exceed the quality of its teachers: the teacher needs to be innovative and committed to new ways of being and doing to nurture the creative spirit in all children.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Gerhardt, S. (2015) Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.

Gopnik, G. (2009) The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Vialle, W. and Botticchio, M. (2009) ‘Creativity and flow theory: Reflections on the talent development of women’. In: J. Shi (ed.), International Conference on the Cultivation and Education of Creativity and Innovation, pp. 97–107. Xi’an, China: Institute of Psychology of Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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