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Why fidget toys work.
2017 seems to be the year of the fidget spinner. You might’ve heard something about it. Ironically, fidget toys are nothing new. They have long been a tool in the toolbox of teachers, therapists, and psychologists. But the question seems to be, do these spinner actually work? Now fidget spinners are being banned in classrooms in multiple states, so let’s take a look at the science behind the fidget craze.
Fidget Toys Work for Sensory Stimulation
Sensory input or sensory stimulation simply means information you take in with your 5 senses. If you have ever listened to music while working, or put on a TV show in the background while cleaning, or even listened to the radio while driving, this is a form of sensory simulation. There is a theory that humans have an ideal measure of sensory stimulation in a given situation.
This may be part of why fidgeting is so natural to us as humans. When we are sitting in a classroom, or in a meeting we usually have something to look at and something to listen to. But what about our other senses? If we are losing our attention, some additional stimulation can help keep us present and grounded. Enter, fidget toys.
Fidget Toys Work for Attention
The average adult attention span maxes out at about 20 minutes. After that we get restless, start to daydream, or use other sensory tools to keep our attention. Have you ever been sitting in a two hour meeting and started to doodle on your paper? Or twirl your hair between your fingers? Found yourself clicking your pen? Essentially what you are doing is using fidgeting to maintain your focus and attention.
For children, their attention is much shorter. Somewhere between 10-15 minutes depending on the child. Add in ADD/ADHD, developmental disability, or anxiety and paying attention can be even more difficult. Fidget toys have been used to foster attention in the classroom, meetings, or in counseling sessions for both children and adults.
There is also some research that suggest that fidgeting allows the brain to work in parallel process, or doing more than one thing at a time. No, this isn’t multitasking, but it is the brain taking in multiple pieces of information at once. Ultimately, sitting in a classroom and listening to the teacher loses our focus, so adding in a fidget makes the brain work harder and stay on task.
Fidget Toys Work For Learning
When we give a speech or presentation, it is natural to move. This may be walking across a stage, moving our hands or leaning in towards our audience. In fact, if you didn’t move, it would be kind of creepy and “unhuman”. Our natural tendency is to move. There is science to suggest that physical movement plays a role in our thinking and learning. Have you ever been assigned homework to write out information that you need to remember
(or had to do it as a punishment!)? The physical act can improve our cognitive or learning ability. Doodling to pay attention is a version of this, too, and even the new fad of adult coloring books can show how coloring provides a therapeutic effect and can even help adults to arrange their thoughts.
Which is the best fidget toy?
So if fidget spinners are helpful for learning, attention and sensory input, why are they being banned? Not all fidget toys are created equal. The ideal toy will provide sensory input though touch while also not requiring you to look at it. This is the problem with fidget spinners. They require your visual attention, taking your focus off of the teacher and onto the toy. Not only your attention, but the kids around you as well. If you sit in the classroom playing with some playdough, it is often much less distracting than a spinning fidget toy (that you can now do tricks with).
So, what are some other options for fidget toys? Here are some fidgets (besides coloring and kinetic sand) that I use in my counseling office:
You can also check out this article for more (cheap) fidgeting suggestions. Be sure to check with your child’s teacher (or your boss) before allowing them to take fidget toys to school.
Fidget For Your Health.
Sometimes you don’t need a toy off of amazon, you can even fidget by using your own body. Sitting still has long been proven to be unhealthy for us, but when we are taking a long drive or stuck in a three hour meeting, it may be impossible to get up and move around (though you should try to get up at least once an hour). Fidgeting by bouncing your leg has shown increased blood flow and reduced blood pressure as compared to those who sat without fidgeting.
Just a thought, but we wouldn’t need to invent toys to fidget with if we all got some more time outside!
I’d love to hear from you. What are your thoughts about fidget toys? Do you let your kids use fidget spinners? How do you feel about school banning them from the classroom? Leave your answers in the comments below.
Erica K. Cieri, LCSW is a therapist and trainer at Made to Thrive in Williamsville, NY. She specializes in working with kids, teens and college students dealing with anxiety, behavior problems, tough relationships and difficulty managing their emotions. She collaborates with her clients to develop strategies to manage their current issues, but also to discover long term how to find peace. Erica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.