Quit Fidgeting: What’s the Deal with Fidget Toys?

What do stress balls, spinners, and Pop-Its have in common? They are fidgets and you can find them anywhere and everywhere.

Fidgets are self-regulation tools designed to help children (and adults) focus and attend to tasks by helping maintain an appropriate arousal level. Their genesis stems from our automatic need to move during times of stress or restlessness, releasing excess energy or soothing our nerves. The idea is to feed our sensory system the movement/touch/deep pressure its seeking when we aren’t able to just get up and move, like when kids are supposed to sit in their seats during class.

The Great (Fidget) Debate

Although these gadgets are promoted to those who have trouble concentrating in school, they’ve been the topic of debate since they became an instant purchasing craze. Many teachers and parents argue over their effectiveness in improving attention and reducing anxiety, since there is little data to support these claims. Some teachers find them too distracting in class, while parents feel like they genuinely help their children focus. Here’s the current research:

  • Studies support the use of fidgets for the ADHD population, indicating improvements in cognitive performance when engaged in greater spontaneous movement (ex: knee bouncing, seat shifting, etc) compared to the alternative of using medication. Despite numerous stories about improvements in attention and focus, further research is needed to confirm their therapeutic use in the classroom.
  • Although studies have found a correlation between fidgeting and stress, and it’s been suggested that fidgeting is the body’s way to self-regulate, there is little published research to support the use of fidgets for the alleviation of stress.
  • A pilot study revealed that sixth graders who used stress balls during class reported that their attitude, attention, writing abilities, and peer interaction improved. Furthermore, these students showed growth in scholastic achievement with the average writing score of the class increasing from 73% (sans stress balls) to 83% (with stress balls). Additionally, the student with the diagnosis of ADHD showed the most progress with an increase of 27% on a writing sample.
  • Research has found that children’s fidget preference can change with their mood, selecting squeezing toys when angry while favoring clicking/pressing/tapping toys when bored.
  • Educators have seen benefits of fidgets in the classroom (especially with neurodiverse children) when they weren’t noisy or distracting to others.

In truth, fidgets are nothing new. Anything can be a fidget if it has these two qualities: a distinct tactile experience and simple repetition. Think of frequently clicking the end of a pen, chewing gum, or playing with your hair. Technically, those are fidgets. For kids, they may not realize what their sensory system needs to calm down and focus. Rather, they might look at certain sensory toys (like silly putty, squishies, or Pop-Its) as tools to help them calm and focus. The problem is when they become distracting to others (looking at you, fidget spinners).

Case of the Spins

Fidgets for the most part require very little thought. They’re typically small, discreet, and can be manipulated without vision. Spinners, on the other hand, have the tendency to become a toy rather than a tool. To use a fidget spinner, you hold the center of the spinner with your thumb and finger as you rotate the spinner with your other fingers (or other hand). The problems arise when a child masters spinning and would like to pursue new tricks, like balancing the rotating spinner on their thumb which requires hand-eye coordination and attention. Not only does this distract the child with the spinner but poses as a distraction to their classmates as well; hence, the root of this debate since 2017.

Worth A Shot

Despite the limited evidence of whether fidgets do or do not work, their acceptance in the classroom has risen since the pandemic. Their approval may also be linked to the surge of educators considering the mental and emotional status of their students and how that affects their ability to learn. If a particular fidget helps them regulate independently without disruption, regardless of hard evidence, why not let them use it?

While some educators may already implement the use of appropriate fidgets in their classroom, some may not. If you feel like your child benefits from the use of fidgets in school, consult with a pediatric Occupational Therapist who can help determine and recommend which therapeutic tools would complement your child’s academic needs. Those recommendations can then be written into their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 accommodation.

If your child doesn’t have or need an IEP but would like to try out a fidget, talk to your child’s teacher and try it out for a temporary period of time. It’s a fine line between tool and toy. Also, don’t try to buy multiple or oversized fidgets. We once saw a Pop-it on vacation that was a in the shape of a 2-foot Captain America shield… This would only reinforce the toy aspect and become much more of a distraction.

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One thought on “Quit Fidgeting: What’s the Deal with Fidget Toys?

  1. Great Post! I have also had a hard time finding scientific evidence on the benefit of fidget toys, but then I chuckle each time I pick up a twisty tie or pen cap while reading an article! lol. The proof is in the pudding! Well done, Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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