Why the Flow Theory is so Important for Recreation Therapists

Let’s take a trip back to our undergraduate days and rediscover the importance of Flow Theory in practicing Recreation Therapy.

Flow Theory Title Page

But before we do that, let’s go even further back to Psychology 101. Remember Maslow? He developed a theory of human motivation. As our most basic survival needs are met, we are able to progress further into needs for personal growth. His hierarchy was a five-tier model which may bring flashbacks to your cramming for final exams days. The tiers were as follows (from bottom to top):

  • Physiological Needs: food, water, shelter, warmth
  • Safety Needs: a sense of security
  • Belongingness and Love Needs: relationships, friends, sense of community
  • Esteem Needs: feeling of accomplishment and prestige
  • Self-Actualization: achieving one’s full potential including creative pursuits

Are the memories trickling back? How about taking a look at the pyramid?

maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid

As we take a look at Maslow’s hierarchy, think about your participants. Where are they on the pyramid? Depending on your setting, this answer could vary. Let’s at least hope their basic needs–the bottom two levels of the hierarchy–are met. Once those needs are fulfilled, the Recreation Therapist’s job begins.

Our social activities give our participants the opportunity for camaraderie and belonging. Whether it is social events at our facility or meaningful experiences in the community, our interventions help participants feel like they belong. It gives them a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves.

In addition, we provide activities and experiences building self-confidence and feelings of accomplishment. How often have your participants proudly talked about something they did while participating in your groups? Even if it was a simple art project or winning a competition, they felt pride in their accomplishments.

As we continue to help our participants meet their personal needs, we reach the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy–self-actualization.

Self-actualization isn’t easy for most people to achieve. For those with special needs and abilities, it is even harder. But we, as Recreation Therapists, have a unique chance to provide self-actualizing opportunities for our participants.

This is where the Flow Theory comes into play.

What is Flow Theory?

You may remember this concept was developed by one of the positive psychology founders–Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is “the state of concentration and engagement that can be achieved when completing a task that challenges one’s skills.”

Think of it like this: Was there a time when you were so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time and everything going on around you? Well, that was Flow.Flow Theory Chart

There is a reason for that. We are only capable of focusing on so much information at any given moment. When we are immersed in an activity that tests our skills without being overwhelming, our attention hones in on that activity. Our identity disappears for a brief period and so do our worries, anxieties, and other issues. As a result, we are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment from doing something we truly enjoy.

Why is Flow Theory Important?

Reaching a state of Flow is naturally joyous and satisfying. Csikszentmihalyi suggests the feeling of flow is directly correlated to purpose in life. His research indicated happiness doesn’t stem from material wealth, but from the sense of purpose one gains from achieving a state of Flow. The more one engages in activities eliciting feelings of Flow, the more fulfilled they will be. This is the key to self-actualization–the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid.

As Recreation Therapists, we can provide our participants activities helping them achieve Flow. It isn’t always easy. Creativity and adaptations are often necessary based on our participants’ unique needs and abilities. If we find that perfect blend of challenging activities that meet our participants’ skill levels, we could help them reach moments of self-actualization.

It’s a tall order, but the benefits are worth it.

How Can Recreation Therapists Help Their Participants Achieve Flow?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. There is no single intervention triggering Flow in every client. The good news is any activity has the potential to bring a participant into this state. Here are some tips to help your participants achieve flow:

  • Know their interests and motivations: Know what your participants like and why they like it. Discover what motivates them to continue these activities or try new ones. Some of this is learned by assessments, but casual conversations and leisure education groups could also bring new insights.
  • Know their skills and needs:  By knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your participants, you provide appropriate activities helping them work on their needs and develop their strengths.
  • Be aware of adaptations: As you know, if an activity is too easy, it will bore the participants. If it is too hard, they will become frustrated. There is so much adaptive equipment available to give recreation opportunities for everyone. Of course, some adaptations don’t require expensive equipment–sometimes changing a few rules or directions may make the activity appropriate.
  • Evaluate your programming: While you run your activities and groups, take a look how your participants are responding. Do they seem engaged or does their attention wander? Are the being challenged enough? How do you intervene when someone becomes frustrated? We all know the best Recreation Therapists are creative and always thinking on their feet. Constantly search for ways to improve your programming.
  • Get them out of their comfort zone: Flow is the balance of an activity being engaging enough where it is not too frustrating or boring. This means flow can be achieved by an activity that is relatively new for the participants. For example, I work in a residential setting that has a lot of inner-city youth. Currently, we have a volleyball team that plays against other residential facilities. Most of my participants have little or no experience with volleyball. I teach them the fundamentals and how to work as a team. As they gain experience, they start playing better. During some games they get so engrossed in the activity that, for a just a few moments, they are so focused on the game that all their other problems disappear. Family issues, gang affiliations, and frustrations of being in a residential facility are gone as they work as a team. As a Recreation Therapist, this is great to see, but that brings me to my next point.


Flow is fleeting, but the teachable moments could affect a lifetime.

Nobody exists in a perpetual state of Flow. It is a temporary condition. As I mentioned with the volleyball game–the kids may only reach that state for several seconds. I could use those seconds, however, as teachable moments. As a teen realizes he was in a state of Flow, we could discuss its importance to a happy and meaningful life. As a group, we could brainstorm activity ideas or leisure pursuits to help them reach a state of Flow. And, of course we discuss how important it is to find engaging positive activities to stay safe, away from harmful substances, and be healthy. Of course, the lessons are different for each population.

Flow Theory and Self-Care

As Activity Professionals, most of us love our jobs–at least most aspects of it. Chances are we aren’t reaching Flow during a majority of our shifts. This is why finding our own Flow is so important for our health, well-being, and personal satisfaction.

A brief aside: I wrote a version of this article months ago, but never fleshed it out to my satisfaction. It started as a piece on chainsawing and finding personal Flow for self-care. Let me explain. For years, I spent Saturday mornings volunteering for the local forest preserves helping to restore the natural habitat. We clear invasive brush, thin out trees, and do a variety of other things to help our natural areas thrive. It’s a great physical activity and an important cause.

picture of chainsawA couple years into my volunteering, I took a chainsaw feller training class. Once I was able to apply this training to the restoration group, I was smitten. Chainsawing was my Flow–at least for Saturday mornings. After a long work week, waking early, being in nature, and helping to clear unwanted trees and brush gave me a sense of purpose beyond my career.

Anyone ever using a chainsaw can attest to how dangerous it could be. It requires total focus to ensure you and everyone in the area are safe. This intense focus enabled a state of Flow where all other thoughts and issues took a backseat to working safely and productively.

So what triggered me to rewrite this post after months of putting it on the back burner? Today–at least the day I started this article–I was driving home after a great workday. I had sawdust everywhere and was soaked from a rainy morning. While flipping through radio stations, I heard the NPR station talking about Flow. It seemed like a sign to rework this article. I included a link to the podcast below.

Maybe that wasn’t a brief aside. Sorry.

The point is this: find the things you love and do them when you could. Get those fleeting moments of Flow and then get them again. None of us Recreation Therapists are getting rich from our jobs, but that doesn’t matter. Self-actualization comes from finding meaning in our lives. Our careers are great, but as all us RTs know, our leisure time gives us the greatest joy.

I’m not suggesting you pick up a chainsaw and start cutting anything in your path. Find activities to get you in the zone. Practice them regularly. You will rejuvenate yourself and put yourself in a better mindset to help those you serve.It will help prevent burnout and compassion fatigue and be a great way to refresh yourself during those stressful weeks.

We all want happiness. By revisiting Maslow and Csikszentmihalyi’s concepts, we find personal fulfillment is possible for everyone. Being mindful of these concepts while planning and running our programs will make them more successful and fulfilling for our participants.


The Real Recreation Therapist LogoTell The Real Recreation Therapist Community:

How do you help your participants reach a state of flow during your programs?

Comment below with any of your thoughts and ideas.

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http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/?showDate=2017-11-03 (This is the podcast I mentioned. The piece on flow is about ten minutes towards the end, but all the talks are interesting.)

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[…] these need areas. How do they do this? It partially involves getting the individual into a “flow” state“. This is where an activity is so engaging that an individual loses track of time and […]

[…] regularly reaching the flow state often report a better quality of life. Why? The activities they do seem more meaningful and […]