Best Fidget Toys for Stress Relief and Focus
What is a Fidget Toy?
Many of us feel more comfortable and focus more easily if we have something to keep our hands occupied during meetings and classes. Doodling and fidgeting is often seen as a sign of distraction or even disrespect, but new research, cited in this article, suggests that fidgeting or doodling is a healthy response to focus issues for some people. As a high school teacher, I have learned to provide my students with simple fidget toys and gadgets. Instead of keeping them distracted, these fidget toys have the effect of letting their hands stay busy while their mind concentrates on the lesson or the discussion.
If you or your child are plagued by ADHD or simply have trouble with attention and focus, a fidget toy or two might help.
Fidget Toys in My Classroom
Having taught junior and senior high for almost twenty years, I have come across a healthy number of kids who have trouble staying focused on lessons and discussions. These are by no means “bad” kids, or even bad students. They are bright and want to learn, but their cognitive processes are often interrupted by the way their brain is "wired" – at least that’s they way I see it. Anything I can do to bring out their true potential as learners is worth trying, even if it’s a little unconventional, or if I have to defend it to the administration, or parents. Among those little adaptations is the use of fidget toys and other “body distractors” that often have the effect of centering these children in the life of the classroom. Without them, they will often wander, both mentally and physically. I have seen this year after year, in classroom after classroom, so when I saw that there was recent data that supported giving attention-challenged kids fidget toys, I immediately knew what they were talking about.
Best-Selling Fidget Toy: the Hand Spinner
More and more I see my students with these fidget toys. They're solid, silent, and really do seem to soothe distractions, which helps my students focus on our discussions and lessons.
How Fidget Toys Can Help Students
A new study published in The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, “Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?” [retrieved from scilearn.com] suggests that ADHD and hyperactivity may actually help students deal with their distractions. This is a truly intriguing thought – that children who act out and can’t seem to control their impulsivity or distractions may be acting that way as an adaptation to actually help them focus. The study cites “common hyperactive behaviors like running, jumping, rolling on the floor and continual talking,” as actions that teachers, parents and peers may automatically interpret as pointless or unrelated to their work. However, the thinking goes, this “acting out” may be adaptations to the constant stimulus coursing through their brain. If steered towards the right channels, they could be viewed as part of the solution instead as part of the problem. This is where fidget toys come in. Since the “busy work” of hyperactivity is one way in which their brain confronts, and ultimately solves, a task that is on the surface interpreted as too complex or difficult for them, giving them a fidget toy might serve the same purpose with less disruption.
An Article in The Atlantic, “Stress Toys: Mindlessness With a Purpose?,” examined the latest thinking about the major impact something as innocuous as a little fidget toy, or stress toy, can have on children as well as adults.
In an advance study published as a presentation for the 8th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction, Michael Karlesky and Katherine Isbister explored the idea that so-called “fidget widgets” are more than just a way to keep your hands busy, or worse, a way to keep your brain busy while you should be concentrating on the task at hand. Part of their presentation proposed that fidget toys are “playful, secondary interactions able to engage the interrelation of bodily movement, affective state, and cognition to support primary serious tasks.”
This is an inexpensive fidget toy that I have had in my classroom and handed out to students who I knew to have attention trouble. Recent studies support the idea that stress toys help some people focus.
Can Fidgeting Actually Improve Performance?
Another study with sixth-grade students found that students who used stress balls were actually less distracted in class, and yet another work showed that fidget toys could actually help relieve the anxiety that patients feel as they prepare for surgery. The simple, silly little fidget toy is starting to like a pretty effective stress and learning tool.
A study retrieved from Phys.org by Alejandro Lleras at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Urbana, Illinois, contradicted long-standing assumptions about how people focus – his work suggested that, rather then a finite resource like a tank of gas that runs out eventually, attention is more like a tank that refills quickly when the brain is given a chance to focus elsewhere and take a short break. In this way, small diversions likely help concentration for the long run, rather than serve as distractions that hurt performance and attention. In this view, loss of attention is not the problem. According to Lleras, "When you are distracted, it doesn't mean you aren't paying attention to anything.” Referring to priests who meditate for hours and who don't concentrate solely on breathing or one object, Lleras said, "It's not that they don't get distracted, but that they're very good at dealing with the distractions and releasing themselves from them. Good meditators will get distracted and get back to their main focus very quickly."
Kinds of Fidget Toys that have Worked in My Classroom
The best individual stress and study toys are inexpensive, since students who have attention challenges are also the ones who tend to lose track of their possessions. I recommend against buying the lovely keepsake metal-and-leather interlocking puzzle things and going with cheaper plastic items – some are sold in bags of a dozen or more, and it doesn’t matter if they’re fancy or “nice” as long as they work. You’ll likely wind up replacing them anyway!
Among the best fidget toys are simple old-fashioned LEGO sets. Most kids are familiar with these from their younger childhood, and so they have an element of reassurance and nostalgia in addition to being easy to handle. Plus, with LEGOS you almost never run out, providing you remind everyone to pick up after themselves. I have seen students come into a teacher’s room carry a LEGO creation from another class, hoping they can continue work on it while they listen to a lesson or participate in a discussion. As long as the student is “dialed in” and not zoned out in LEGO La La Land, I think that’s just fine.
This large creative LEGO box is tailor-made to keep over-active or distracted kids in one place and listening to what's going on in the class. There are enough pieces here that if you lose a few -- and you will -- it's not a huge deal. Highly recommended for those classes that seem to be inflicted with "mass hyperactivity disorder."
Parental and Administrative Objections to Fidget Toys
It sometimes happens that parents hear about fidget toys in the classroom and raise objections. For many parents, the idea of "toys" in the classroom goes against their idea of how school should be. They also sometimes object to their child's hands being busy with a stress gadget when they could be taking notes instead. Often they miss the point -- the reason the child has a fidget toy in her hands in the first place is because she's having so much trouble focusing that she isn't able to take notes. If I can get students to focus on what's being said, and to shut our external distractions by keeping that part of the brain busy, then there's a chance the lesson will sink in and they'll actually have a chance to become engaged in the life of the class.
Administrators are typically more accommodating with unconventional tactics like stress gadgets in the classroom, partly because they can see the big picture -- the tactic is helping a number of kids pull back from the brink of losing touch with the class and their own education. Administrators who trust their teachers tend to let them do when they think is best and what they see works. A parent, by contrast, is only focused on one child, their own. It can be difficult for them to accept the fact that their child is having serious trouble focusing, and also that something as simple and "silly" as a stress relief gadget or fidget toy can really help them have a better experience in class.
Good Luck -- Hope Your Kids Find Their Fidgits!
"Brief diversions may help employees improve work," https://phys.org/news/2011-02-diversions-employees.html.
The Atlantic, “Stress Toys: Mindlessness With a Purpose?", https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/stress-toys-focus-work/398453/
The Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, “Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?” [retrieved from scilearn.com]