Playing games seems like simply child’s play, doesn’t it? You set up a situation, have pre-determined rules and a goal, and then go about reaching the goal, either competitively or cooperatively. Simple, right? 

Not so fast.

There’s an entire psychological theory that can predict whether a game is successful (fun) or not (boring). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the pioneers of the scientific study of happiness. In 1990, he wrote the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in which he postulated, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.” Let’s put it this way – have you ever been so swept up in an activity (reading, playing chess, video gaming, meditating) that you don’t realize that hours have passed? You’re in “the flow.” You have found the delicate balance between the challenge of an activity and your ability to participate. If an activity is too challenging for your ability, you become anxious and frustrated so you stop. On the other hand, if an activity is too easy for your ability, you become bored and end up stopping. 

The sweet spot in finding or creating a game for children is to provide just enough challenge to help them feel rewarded, not bored or frustrated. To set up such circumstances, Csikszentmihalyi suggests the following elements:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

As you can see, NONE of the elements that make an activity fun includes actually winning a game. It’s almost like the goal of the game itself disappears and you are laser-focused on performing the activity/challenge instead. When you are in The Flow, your entire brain is engaged. This is what we want  our children to find in our yoga activities. And not every child will find The Flow in every activity – different kids react in different ways, have differing abilities, and various interest levels in any particular activity. So be sure to offer a myriad of activities throughout your classes – physical challenges, speed races, mental activities, etc.

Here are a couple of fun group activities and games that might get your students into The Flow:

Standing Noodles: Hand out one pool noodle to each participant. Start the game with everyone holding a pool noodle straight up and everyone standing in a circle a few feet apart. Then say “1,2,3 GO!” and everyone lets go of their noodle and moves in a clockwise direction to the next noodle to catch it before it falls. The goal is to keep all the noodles standing for as many rounds as possible. After a few rounds, everyone takes a step out to make it a little more challenging.

Freeze Dance: Play music that encourages movement (like marches or dance music). Encourage kids to move creatively while the music is playing. When you pause the music, everyone freezes in whatever position they are in. They can decide to be in a challenging posture (like a balance posture or a weight-bearing pose like plank) or in an easier position. Then start the music again and start moving once more.

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