Finding Flow

Image: An Assemble Play session at St Giles in the Fields. Credit @AssemblePlay

Published 28 October, 2021

It’s half term holidays in England. 

On Tuesday morning I took my five year old to a play session in a churchyard a few streets back from Tottenham Court Road in Central London. Organised by the wonderful playworkers at Assemble Play (in partnership with The Royal Academy of Arts), the churchyard at St Giles in the Fields had been transformed into an other-worldly place. 

Gauzy play silks hung suspended from tethers between the trees and large wheelie trolleys lay on their sides transformed into secret hidey-holes. Kids ran around in a vast assortment of dress up costumes, dragging, pushing and waving all manner of objects with expression ranging from purposeful to ecstatic to downright menacing. My gaze was riveted to the sight of three year old girl determinedly pushing wooden cart containing a pink plastic flamingo and a rubber chicken.

Initially my son just wanted to observe – watchful and slightly trepidatious about the number of moving bodies and sheer exuberant chaos of the space. But a short time later he spotted a friend from school and the two of them were drawn an imaginary world, apparently spying on the ‘royalty’ who had rebuffed their attempts to join in.  

Image: Loose-parts heaven in the churchyard

Finding flow

An hour or so later his friend left, the role-playing ended and my son shifted into a different sort of play, a more ‘flowful’ state. 

Oversized (and surprisingly robust) balloons had come out and were drifting around the space, kept aloft by eager arms – reminiscent of Slava’s Snow Show. The orange balloon became lodged high up in the branches of a tree and an enthusiastic crowd gathered around the playworker as he hurled foam blocks into the air until eventually it came free amidst cheers. Other balloons disappeared over fences, some popped. 

The play silks continued to billow backwards and forwards in the autumnal gusts. From time to time children came running in from all directions to be chased with delight by the huge blue parachute-cum-box kite as it was dragged through its arc.  

I was struck by the dream-like quality of the experience, even as a parent watching on. Sounds diminished but my sense of movement and light was heightened. There was a change in the passing of time. The playworkers were holding a space – lightly and beautifully – for the children, but they weren’t the only ones experiencing the deep flow occurring in this kaleidoscopic churchyard.

Characteristics of flow

It’s impossible to talk about flow without acknowledging the passing of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – the ‘Father of Flow’ – who died last week aged 78. With over four decades of research into flow, he identified ten characteristics, some or all of which may be present: 

  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  • There are clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
  • There is a complete focus on the activity itself.
  • People experience feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  • People have feelings of serenity and a loss of self-consciousness.
  • There is immediate feedback.
  • People know that the task is doable and there is a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
  • People experience a lack of awareness of their physical needs.
  • There is strong concentration and focused attention.
  • People experience timelessness, or a distorted sense of time, that involves feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.

“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 

If Mihaly was able to see St Giles in the Fields this week, I’m sure he would have given a smile of recognition to the playworkers – one flow professional to another. 

Credit: @AssemblePlay

Credit: @AssemblePlay

Two streets back from Tottenham Court Road

Later in the afternoon I participated in a social dreaming session hosted by Dan Lawrence for the Organize community, and during the reflections I found myself sharing the experiences of the morning – spending time paying close attention to young children tends to be a stimulating experience! Someone in the group observed in response, “It’s two streets back”.

I‘ve written previously about the importance of childhood play as a foundation for flourishing, and how it has been deprioritised in our children’s over-scheduled lives. As adults, we neglect our own opportunities for play and flow even more, spending so much of our time tied to ‘shoulds’.  

How often do we choose to leave the busyness of our lives – up there on Tottenham Court Road – and walk two streets back to the churchyard of serious play?

What makes life worth living?

Why am I sharing this half-term story with you? Because as the week draws to a close I’m still entranced by the memory of the light and the palpable sense of joy within and around me. Because I take Mary Oliver’s ‘Instructions for living a life’ to heart and I think there’s something in this for all of us.

We spend much of our lives (figuratively at least) on Tottenham Court Road, living what Jung refers to as ‘first half of life’. That’s ok – for a time. It’s normal and necessary to establish a sense of what Richard Rohr calls our ‘container’ of self, focused on financial safety and who we are in the context of society.  We find comfort in the familiarity of busyness and predictable pathways. 

But there’s more living to be had, what Jung refers to as ‘second half of life’, where a shift occurs and we begin to consider what is inside our container, what matters to us and brings us alive, and how it may relate to a wider context of life. This requires us to leave the familiar path and find our own way, connected to a deeper sense of identity and purpose than the shiny display seen in the first half.

It seems no coincidence to me that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s lifetime of work in flow arose from the question of what makes life worth living.

“We can’t afford to become trapped within ourselves, our jobs, and religions, and lose sight of the entire tapestry of life. 

When the self loses itself in a transcendent purpose — whether to write great poetry, craft beautiful furniture, understand the motions of galaxies, or help children be happier — the self becomes largely invulnerable to the fears and setbacks of ordinary existence.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Far from being self-centred or frivolous, cultivating play and flow are of vital importance regardless of age. Our deepest joy and the world’s deepest needs are interconnected. 

Reflections

If you’ve experienced a twang about anything in this story, I encourage you to pause for a moment and consider it. 

  • Do you feel an urge to experience life beyond your Tottenham Court Road? If so, what do you notice about the sensations and thoughts that arise? What might you need to be in place to help you step out of your norm from time to time?
  • What are your own doorways or entry points into these flowful, playful spaces? A friend this week described how she was filled with joy when wrapped up in the flow of dancing. For many in Tuesday’s social dreaming group it was intentional time spent in nature. For me, music, sunlight  – and increasingly painting and poetry – are also gateways to flow states. 
  • Shared activities such as singing and dancing can increase our sense of safety, connection and flow. For example, a number of clients and friends have shared recently about the vitality and joy they experience as part of a choir. 
  • Unstructured spaces can feel disorienting and chaotic, especially if we’re not familiar with them. My son has a well-practiced play muscle and it took him half an hour to find his way. A well-dressed man walked through hastily with his two large dogs, looking wildly left and right as if he couldn’t believe what was unfolding around him. Paying attention to our internal reactions and treating ourselves with kindness is vital. Over time we can slowly build a sense of safety in letting go of control and being immersed in these alternative realities. 

If something has stirred within you, I invite you to notice what you notice about play, flow, and joy over the next few days. 

I would love to hear what you discover about your own churchyard of serious play, and what it might say to you about the wider tapestry of life.

‘Cause I know a land called the Land of the Living
It’s the world beyond those curtains where we learned to play
I hear the voices of my childhood singing
It’s the world beyond those doorways where we used to play

‘Cause every moment
Is a chance to define what you want to become
You’re not a slave to things you’ve done
Be brave and be bold
Be childish and old, it’s the same old story
Every life needs a hope of glory

– Roo Panes, Land of the Living

Notes and Acknowledgements

The hero of this article is of course Penny Wilson and her crew of experienced playworkers at Assemble Play. They came together in 2018 for the Play KX project which was funded and located at Kings Cross/Granary Square (my son spent his fourth birthday there just before Covid!).

When funding came to an end they decided the format was too good to loose and became a branch of Assemble (Turner prize winning architecture design and art collective). These days they are nomadic and eagerly seeking more consistent funding and venue opportunities.

With cities being poorly designed for the 20% of population who are children, and play being a right and a requirement for childhood flourishing (read my earlier blog), Assemble Play seeks to “put play in its place, almost anywhere”. Their child-led approach is underpinned by the UNCRC article 31 ‘Every Child has the Right to Play’ and Playwork Principles, as well as the rich diversity of each playworker themselves. 

For more information, or to get in touch with opportunities, you can find Penny on Instagram

Penny’s ‘The Playwork Primer‘ is also a delightful and thoughtful read for anyone interested in this space.

  • A place of worship has stood at St Giles in the Fields since 1101! You can find out more of its fascinating (and often grim) history here.
  • If you’re not already familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, his TED talk entitled ‘Flow, the secret to happiness’ is a great start. 
  • Mary Oliver’s Instructions for Living a Life is found within the larger poem Sometimes.
  • In Falling Upward – A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr takes Carl Jung’s idea of the two halves of life and adds the concept of the container. This book has had a profound influence on my life in recent years. 
  • This is an opportunity to highlight my friend Kieran Morris who leads the Sing Healthy choirs! You can also learn more about his amazing work helping people use their voice with confidence and joy.