2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

TC Media Center from the Office of External Affairs

Section Navigation

"Flow" and Music Learning in Children

Lori A. Custodero, Assistant Professor of Music Education, likes to illustrate her research. She talks about five-year old Jonathan who sits on the floor with his classmates, intently focusing on a teacher, who is telling a story with rhythmic chants. The teacher pauses long enough, Custodero relates, for Jonathan to finish the phrase and to begin exuberantly clapping and chanting. According to Custodero, who has written "Observing Flow in Young Children's Music Learning" (published in General Music Today, Fall 1998), "The musical behaviors of these children show them to be highly self-challenged and focused…Thinking and doing become one." They were in "flow."

Custodero, who has studied the works of Mihlayi Csikszentmihalyi, a social psychologist from the University of Chicago and coined the word "flow," has attempted to evaluate the same optimal learning experience in young children that were observed in adults and adolescents.

The term "flow" was coined to capture the qualities of the optimal learning experience. "Flow," Custodero said, "is used to characterize a state in which the perceived challenge and the perceived skill level for an activity are both high. Studies show that people in flow feel highly challenged and highly capable."

Additional qualities that define an individual's flow experience include a perception of clear goals, reception of immediate feedback, a merging of action and awareness, high levels of concentration, a sense of potential control by the individual, and a loss of self-consciousness.

Custodero, who was working with preschoolers in music classes was able to discern a frequent and consistent flow experience among the children. Custodero said, "The aural, visual, and kinesthetic qualities of musical activities provided the children with multiple vantage points for goal perception and achievement, as well as opportunities for clear and immediate feedback. The music-making they engaged in-singing, moving and playing instruments-required merging action and awareness, with the individual with the locus of control."

"For music," Custodero, said, "flow is quite recognizable. There are specific goals that are very clear. In music concentration is deep and we kind of lose ourselves a bit. And we're certainly transcended by the experience.Csikszentmihalyli developed a very systematized way to look at flow through what he called the experience sampling methodology. He had his subjects wear beepers who were randomly beeped for a week-eight to ten times a day- and stopped whatever they were doing to fill out a two-page form about how they felt about what they were doing.

Explaining her research with pre-schoolers, Custodero said, "I had an instinctive feeling about flow in four year-olds but I had to operationalize that as a researcher because my study is based on observation rather than self reports since four year-olds can't really spell or fill our forms."

Custodero looked very hard and long and found that videotaping the youngsters was the answer. Through the process of videotaping sessions, she found that the children were either anticipating what the teacher was delivering, expanded on the material to make it more challenging, extended it by "being so full of the moment," or were perceived to be challenged by the activity.

The question is how can one tell that these were indicators of flow?The researcher explained. "I found observing children's behavioral manifestations. I found that children would self-correct. That is important. We'd can even call it problem solving."

"They were also self assigned," Custodero, said, "which in children means ‘I can play it with my eyes closed."'previous page