Dr. Angela Duckworth is a researcher and professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Duckworth’s most recent book, Grit, explores the years of research she conducted on what drives some people to become experts in their particular fields. Duckworth asserts that a combination of passion and perseverance (or grit) are the driving forces behind successful people. People who are truly passionate about what they do and somehow possess the intrinsic motivation and stamina to commit countless hours of practice into perfecting their craft are the ones who become superstars.
Dr. Tony Wagner is an educator and author who currently serves as an Expert In Residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab. Dr. Wagner wrote the book Creating Innovators in which he examines the backgrounds and habits of people who successfully solve problems through inventive discoveries. Wagner’s premise is that innovators are people whose passion, play, and purpose in life enable them to become successful, creative innovators.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-high”)* is a psychologist whose research on success and happiness led to his understanding of what he called “Flow.” Flow can be described as a state of consciousness, a complete immersion, energized focus and satisfaction in an activity. Flow comes from intrinsic motivation and involves enjoyment in the process of participating in an activity without apparent effort or conscious thought despite significant levels of difficulty.
Now you may be wondering, what do grit, innovation and flow have in common besides having been studied by researchers from top institutions of higher education? Why does this research matter to me as a parent?
The immediate answer that may come to mind might be: PASSION. Dr. Duckworth placed the word, “Passion” prominently on the cover of her book. Dr. Wagner extols passion as a driving force behind creative problem solvers and Dr. Csikszentmihalyi found that passion and flow go hand in hand. Passion is certainly a current buzzword. A recent article revealed that passion is what colleges are looking for in their applicants and parents everywhere seem to be encouraging their children to pursue theirs early and with perseverance. But despite their best efforts, parents cannot dictate their children’s passions.
But there is an important element that precedes passion that may easily be overlooked. When asked by an audience member about the role of play in childhood, Angela Duckworth had this to say, “Before practice, comes play. A romantic period of play must come first (before perseverance and passion).”
Play is a thread explored by all three of these scholars. Play sat at the core of experiences of all the successful people they studied. As children, the successful people who were studied were given time, space and opportunities to explore and discover what their passions were. Through play they developed skills necessary for learning, discovering and failing and trying. They discovered their interests and learned what intrinsic motivation, process and flow feels like, giving them the drive to continue to pursue perfection and innovation with passion, grit and purpose.
One of my favorite things about being a teacher of young children is to watch them discover flow. Children can be so caught up in the process of the play they are participating in that the whole world outside their play fades completely away. “What?! It’s clean up time already?” they may cry. “We only just started!”
It is rare, however, for the children in my class to achieve flow in their play or activities if the activities are teacher initiated. What my fellow teachers and I notice is that when children have the opportunity to make their own choices in our classroom on how to spend their time and are encouraged to play creatively, they can and will achieve flow. While in the flow, they recognize intrinsic motivation and seeds of passion are planted. With guided access to multiple materials and activities, brief instruction on possible ways to best interact with tools and props within an environment that permits and encourages risk and failure, children can find their interests that lead to passion and purpose.
Deliberate practice is important, but it must be preceded by exploratory, creative play of discovery. If there is one thing we can learn from these researchers: passion and flow cannot be given or bestowed on others but is discovered through play. We must give our children time, opportunity and options to play and to find their own passions. Only then will our children have the purpose and flow that will drive them to practice and persevere and become successful later in life.
Childhood should be reserved for play. Without play, children are cheated of the opportunity to discover their own passions, and without intrinsically motivated passion, burnout is more likely than success.
* p. 128 in Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.