Stop touching things! The role of fidget toys

Parents have you seen your child waiting in a room, sitting at a dinner table or riding in the back of the car touching things, grabbing something or just wanting things in their hands? Teachers, have you had a child reach out and grab things, pick up small items and play with them, seek out other children’s laces?

You may have had these experiences and wondered why are they doing this? Why must they have something in their hands?! You may be familiar with some of the concepts and terms of sensory integration, such as sensory processing, modulation and regulation. If not, check out our previous blog on Sensory Integration basics, to better understand what we are talking about.

In many of the above situations, children are ‘seeking’ extra sensory input they may otherwise not be receiving from their environment. Some refer to this as a ‘high threshold’ to neurological input, and as such, the more input they get, the more alert an organised their minds can be. The concept of fidget toys is based on this, where children are seeking things to touch and feel, to provide the ‘just right’ amount of sensory input, to calm their nervous system. Fidget toys are often used to provide sensory input in a less distracting way. They can help improve concentration and attention to tasks by allowing the brain to filter out the extra sensory information (e.g. listening to a lesson in the classroom, paying attention to a book during circle time). By having a fidget toy, a child may be able to better ‘filter out’ excess sensory information in their surroundings and their own body, which is causing distraction, and encouraging this sensory information to be focused on a toy in the hands.

Through targeting the tactile system, the hands can be very good regulators for attention and modulation in an environment. The homunculus (pictured below) is a visual representation of the anatomical divisions of the primary motor cortex (part of the brain responsible for processing and integrating motor information) and the primary somatosensory cortex (part of the brain responsible for the processing and integrating tactile – touch – information). This is most important when referring to fidget toys and tactile information. 

If we look at the body’s homunculus, we can see that a large section of the picture contains the hands (including all the fingers and the thumb). You may also see that the mouth has a large representation. This again shows how effective the mouth can be in supporting regulation, which has already been noted in a previous OTFC post Chewing Through the Facts. From a Sensory perspective, given how dominant the hand representation is to the body, it make sense that the hands, with lots of neurological and sensory input, can be effective regulators of the body’s nervous system.

What makes a good fidget toy?

It is important they are relatively cheap (or more expensive ones – durable), safe, small enough, particularly for the classroom: not noisy or produce noise to distract, and able to be used without distracting others too much.

It is also important to factor in some of these questions when choosing a toy:

– What are their foundation skills like (do they have the hand strength or motor skills for a specific toy?)

– Do they have sensory preferences? Are there textures, shapes, sensations they will avoid? (remember to try and provide toys that will be sought and will provide a calming influence)

– What times during the day do they seem most fidgety? And when would they most benefit from having a toy?

– How long will they use the toy for? What are the rules around it?

So, we know WHY and HOW fidget toys can be effective, so let’s mention a few. Some can be bought specifically as fidget toys, and some are everyday things that can be extremely effective in maintaining regulation at home and in a classroom. Many of these can be combined, stored in a ‘fidget box’ and given to a child to chose from, each time they feel the need for a fidget toy.

– Tangles

– Koosh Balls

– Putty

– Blu tack

– Paperclips

– Stress Balls

– Corks

– Velcro under a desk

– A hand sized smooth Stone

– Homberman Sphere

These are just some examples, but there are many more! If you have any effective fidget toys, please feel free to comment, and we may post it on the blog!

For those wanting fidget toys and some places to access and further ideas, the below links have a great range of specific fidget toys:

Special Needs toys

Sensory Tools

Refreshing Memories 

Windmill Toys (252 The Parade, Norwood)

In addition, your local $2 shop or bargain shop will often sell some great fidget toys at a low cost!

Happy fidgeting!


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