Flow Learning


Learn about Flow Learning teaching method, its four stages, and the qualities of each stage. In the words of Joseph Cornell.


This section is excepted from Joseph Cornell’s latest book “Deep Nature Play: A Guide to Wholeness, Aliveness, Creativity, and Inspired Learning”. © Joseph Cornell 2016. Cited with permission.

Flow Learning is a teaching system that creates an accelerating flow of inspiration. During its four-step process, players and play become harmoniously united. 

Just as, during my nighttime slumber, I felt exhilaration in the flying falcon [dream sequence] and became at home with him in the sky, Flow Learning, by creating a sequence of playful activities through cumulative stages, elevates play to deep play, and in doing so removes human barriers that separate us from the natural world. Flow Learning is not only a teaching method; it’s a practice that brings us to higher understanding.

How much we bring play into work, school, or leisure time ranges from not at all to in every moment—the more we live playfully, the greater our joy and creativity. Because they are committing their whole being to the class topic, Flow Learning participants can experience greater purpose, focus, openness, and depth of understanding: all ingredients essential for true learning.


“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. To play is to act out and be willful, exultant and committed as if one is assured of one’s prospects.”

– Brian Sutton, professor of education (emeritus), University of Pennsylvania


To change matter from solid to liquid, or from liquid to gas, requires energy; without energy, nothing will ever change or move. Energy is also required to move a classroom of students. In this case, the energy comes from within the students themselves, generated by their willpower and spirit. By awakening their whole being, Flow Learning and the playful Sharing Nature activities generate in students a strong flow of intense interest in the subject. Because the full cooperation of their will is engaged, students are able to experience new vistas of learning.

Although originally I created Flow Learning for teaching outdoor nature classes, the same sequence can be used to teach any subject matter, whether indoors or outdoors. Flow Learning is based on the universal principles behind how people learn, become more aware, and mature as human beings. Tens of thousands of educators and outdoor leaders have found this teaching system extremely effective.

By choosing the appropriate games, you can meet people where they are, then guide them gently, step-by-step, to higher learning and play experiences. Flow Learnings four cumulative stages are: i) Awaken Enthusiasm, 2) Focus Attention, 3) Offer Direct Experience, and 4) Share Inspiration. Each Sharing Nature activity is categorized by its appropriate stage. Camera, for example, is an Offer Direct Experience activity.

[end of book excerpt]

The FLOW LEARNING sequence:

    • Stage One: Awaken Enthusiasm

    • Stage Two: Focus Attention

    • Stage Three: Offer Direct Experience

    • Stage Four: Share Inspiration

Awaken Enthusiasm

Awaken Enthusiasm games make learning fun, instructive, and experiential-and establish a rapport between teacher, student, and subject.

continued...

Without enthusiasm, people learn very little, and can never have a meaningful experience of nature. By enthusiasm, I don’t mean jumping-up-and-down excitement, but an intense flow of personal interest and alertness.

Quality: Playfulness and Alertness

  • Builds on people’s love of play.

  • Creates an atmosphere of enthusiasm.

  • A dynamic beginning gets everyone saying, “Yes, I like this!”

  • Develops alertness and overcomes passivity.

  • Creates involvement.

  • Minimizes discipline problems.

  • Develops rapport between participants, leader, and subject.

  • Fosters positive group bonding.

  • Provides direction and structure.

  • Prepares for later, more sensitive activities.

Focus Attention

Focus Attention activities help students become attentive and receptive to nature.

continued...

Learning depends on focused attention. Enthusiasm alone isn’t enough. If our thoughts are scattered, we can’t be intensely aware of nature, nor of anything else. As leaders, we want to bring students’ enthusiasm toward a calm focus.

Quality: Receptivity

  • Increases attention span and concentration.

  • Deepens awareness by focusing attention.

  • Positively channels enthusiasm generated in Stage One.

  • Develops observational skills.

  • Calms the mind.

  • Develops receptivity for more sensitive nature experiences

Offer Direct Experience

By bringing us face to face with a bird, a wooded hill, or any natural subject, Offer Direct Experience activities give us intuitive experiences of nature.

continued...

During immersive nature experiences, students make a deep connection with an aspect of nature. Offer Direct Experience activities are built on the students’ enthusiasm and receptivity, and are generally quiet and profoundly meaningful.

Quality: Communing with Nature

  • Fosters deeper learning and intuitive understanding.

  • Inspires wonder, empathy, and love.

  • Promotes personal revelation and artistic inspiration.

  • Awakens an enduring connection with some part of nature.

  • Conveys a sense of wholeness and harmony.

Share Inspiration

Share Inspiration activities create a sense of completion and an uplifting atmosphere conducive to embracing noble ideals.

continued...

Reflecting and sharing with others strengthen and clarify one’s experience. Sharing brings to the surface unspoken but often universal feelings that—once communicated—allow people to feel a closer bond with the topic and with one another.

Quality: Clarity and idealism

  • Clarifies and strengthens personal experience. 

  • Increases learning.

  • Builds on uplifted mood.

  • Promotes positive peer reinforcement.

  • Fosters group bonding.

  • Encourages idealism and altruistic behavior.

  • Provides feedback for the leader.


See also: The importance of emotions in learning