What should I do with my hands? Redirecting focus with fidget toys

Clear cup of fidget toys - slinky, koosh ball, little toy animals...

My desk both at work and at home is covered in toys.  Miniature Slinky toys, bouncy balls, Play-doh, Koosh toys; the list goes on.  When I cannot bring myself to focus having something to fiddle with always works to redirect my thoughts to the target problem and keep my idle hands occupied.  This is the same reason I stray away from pens that click.  I cannot seem to help but indulge myself in mindlessly clicking the pen, annoying everyone around me.  It helps me focus, but everyone else suffers.

Staying focused is essential in a classroom.  Students are often given limited time to understand a concept before they are tested and move on to something new.  To ensure that everyone is getting the best education it is important that focus is directed towards what is being learned and not something trivial.  Redirecting focus in the classroom can be challenging, but there are a few tricks educators have in their arsenal.  Ambrose Panico has some great strategies for managing a classroom, but for today we’re just focused on fidget toys.

The use of fidget toys may be advantageous in classrooms when it is necessary to keep a student’s hands occupied with a mindless task.  Mindlessness is important for this strategy – the idea is to occupy the hands, not the brain.

Who benefits from fidget toys in the classroom?

For students who begin touching other students, tapping their fingers on their desk, or needlessly organizing their papers, a fidget toy may be useful.  Although this is not always the case, students diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), autism spectrum disorder, or sensory integration disorder may find the greatest benefit from integrating fidget toys into the lesson.  Determining how to best battle your fidgeting can be difficult, but the Internet has many communities and websites established around this topic that could be of help.

Educators also benefit from the use of fidget toys.  Having a room full of students who are having their individual needs met fosters a more manageable environment for everyone.  Creating a more manageable atmosphere allows more focus to be allocated to delivering the lesson plan, which is exactly what we are aiming for.

Integrating fidget toys into your lesson

Pulling out a bin of colorful, plush toys in a classroom with little to no explanation may be effective for some educators, but setting ground rules will help to redirect focus to classwork in a more productive manner.  Let students know that the fidget toys are there to occupy their hands if they desire, but they are not to be used as weapons or to distract their peers.  Slinky toys tangled in long locks of hair and Koosh balls whizzing through the air at top speed is not the aim here.  A room full of productive students who are happily learning is more what we’re looking for.  Setting these ground rules is necessary regardless of the population you’re working with, even adults can get carried away with toys.

Desensitization to fidget toys can occur.  Using these tools sparingly will increase their benefit in the classroom.  Not all lessons will allow for the use of fidget toys, as realistically students may need their hands for writing, typing, or turning pages.  When the fidget toys are no longer serving their purpose, remove them.

For myself, I find toys to be the most useful during classroom discussions or movies.  Any time I speak in front of people and find myself becoming anxious I tend to fiddle with my hands.  This movement often distracts myself and others from what I’m saying.  When I have an object to hold I stop fiddling and can focus on articulating my thoughts.  During lectures where I will be taking notes or typing, fidget toys are often pushed to the side and no longer of any value.

When using fidget toys keep in mind that students have individual needs and varied personalities.  Some students are more apt to throw things, or put objects in their mouth, and these factors need to be kept in mind when supplying tools such as fidget toys.

Fidget toys in sexuality education

Sex is a natural part of life; however that does not absolve it of causing anxiety among many people.  When teaching about sex you are undoubtedly going to come across people who fall all over the spectrum of comfort in discussing sex and sexuality.  The middle portion of this spectrum, those who are not wholeheartedly aligned to either extreme, will be swayed towards comfort or discomfort.  The behaviors and body language of everyone making up the room, educator included, will help these individuals comprising the middle of the spectrum to determine where they lie.  If the room is full of people who are uncomfortably fidgeting it could cause the atmosphere to take a nosedive toward unease and withdrawal.

Supplying fidget toys in sexuality education can alter the entire atmosphere of the classroom.  Fidget toys can cultivate a more manageable anxiety level when difficult topics are being covered.  Much of sexuality education is discussion, making it an ideal environment for the use of fidget toys as the hands are not otherwise occupied writing or typing.  Be sure to take notice if people are occupying themselves more with their fidget toy than the conversation.  In some cases fidget toys can be used as a distraction from what may be uncomfortable thoughts or feelings.

What fidget toys work best

The realm of fidget toys is vast, bleeding into both the classroom and office worlds.  Any small toy that provides little added distraction should work well.  Keep in mind that students have a myriad of needs and not one type of toy will likely appeal to everyone.  Variety in your selection of fidget toys and a large enough quantity that students are not quarreling over getting one are ideal.  Bec Oakley, of snagglebox.com, has created a great guide for classroom friendly fidget toys.

Things to avoid include:

  • Toys that create noise.
  • Strong odors.
  • Materials students may be allergic to, such as latex.
  • Choking hazards.
  • Expensive toys.
  • Large, bulky toys.
  • Toys that could be easily lost. Think of the marble that rolls underneath the refrigerator never to be heard from again.
  • Toys that may be difficult to clean. The cleanliness of your fidget toys is important.  Illness travels quickly, so take every precaution by keeping your stock of toys clean.

Several companies work in the fidget toy industry, creating toys that are perfect for the office and classroom.  General toy stores are also likely to have something that appeals to you and your students.  I would recommend checking out the product in person so you can ensure the toy conforms to your specifications.  An added bonus, you can play with some toys in the name of education.

I recommend Tangle toys or Koosh toys for the classroom.  These toys provide little noise and come in an array of fun colors.  Kits that come with many toys in them are also a great value.

An individual's hands playing with a Tangle brand toy

Tangle toys

Line of 6 koosh balls in different colors

Koosh balls

Whether you need a fidget toy to keep idle hands occupied, or you just really enjoy having a reminder of childhood lying around, toys can have merit in the classroom.  What toys would you recommend as fidget toys?

10 responses to “What should I do with my hands? Redirecting focus with fidget toys

  1. I love this information and thank you for writing about it! When classmates start talking about the same topic for an extended amount of time, I find myself wanting to write or fiddle with something in my hands. This never struck me as a good thing until Dr. Sitron put various toys out for us to play with during our first weaken of class. I can’t do this with the kindergarten students I work with, but when I eventually start leading courses on the college level I’m taking this into consideration. Even if I can’t provide toys for my students, I can encourage them to bring their own silent toys and gadgets.

  2. Thank you for posting on this topic. I had not really explored this approach until I began to study learning styles and how to teach to various learning intelligence. Some of the college students I have worked with expressed feeling anxious when sitting in class and I recommended they take a stress ball with them. This seemed to help them focus and stop bouncing their legs or physically moving in a way that was distracting to others. I am still trying to figure out how to work this approach into my own classes, so this was extremely helpful! – SSR

  3. This really appeals to me as one with a Theatre Arts background (props, toys and play are tools I use). Bringing or using my arts background into teaching other classes and subjects is something I actively do and this post has validated my thoughts and views on the use of toys not just as part of drama class, but as potentially helpful tools to help ground, centre and focus students. Thanks so much!

  4. The only time I was given fidget toys as a youth was in a counselor’s office. I didn’t receive a fidget toy in the classroom until I was an adult. Personally, I don’t like touching fidget toys because of my obsessive compulsive disorder, so I prefer to bring my own fidget toy if I’m going to be in class for long periods of time. One suggestion is for educators to invite the participants or students to bring in their own fidget toys if they think it’d be useful. With younger participants, the toys could be approved by the teacher in advance if this is a concern.

    I really appreciate this blog post, and the validation of fidget toys. Another option that I heard a teacher provide was doodling. For the first time in my life, as an adult, an educator validated my doodling and writing during class. The educator said that some people need to constantly be writing, and it was the first time I realized that was what I needed, and had it verbalized.

    Thank you, Damiene!

  5. I think fidget toys are amazing and I can’t believe it took 22 years for me to be introduced to them in the classroom setting. Because fidgeting to stay focussed is only applicable to some students, how do you keep students, who do not need fidget toys, away from them? For some students it is so much more of a distraction, but as a kid, if I was given the option I would have gotten a fidget toy from the bin even if I didn’t need one. I think that it would be hard to control in a younger classroom setting.

  6. I’m not exactly sold on fidget toys. I’m trying to keep an open mind about them, but I still feel that they would be more of a distraction. I have about 30 kids in a classroom for 44 minutes, and I’m expected to jam pack a ton of information in during that time. Knowing how easily distracted I get, I feel that I would spend more time watching my students fidget and lose track of what I’m teaching. I already have to battle with cell phones and other electronic devices that I don’t see how having fidget toys would enhance the learning experience. I can see them possibly being beneficial in an adult environment, but I know that if I put a koosh ball in front of my kids, it would be tossed around the room and the focus of the class would go to the koosh ball instead of to what I was teaching.

    • I think I understand where you’re coming from. Fidget toys for kids can serve more as temptation/distraction than as a type of redirection. I appreciate you sharing what your classroom would be like with the introduction of toys. Before you mentioned your attention, I hadn’t taken into account that the instructor could become just as distracted as the students. I’ve been trying to think of some ways to incorporate these types of fidget devices into the classroom while minimizing the possibility for distraction. As it stands, fidget toys aren’t adapted for all environments. So far the best I’ve come up with is desk with built-in squishy pads that can be pushed and poked but are a part of the desk so they cannot be thrown or stolen. Alas, this device would only work for a few seconds before someone punctured the squishy pad with a pencil. If you think of any fidget toy inventions that might be effective in your classroom I’d love to hear them!

  7. I love how this is so applicable in my 4th grade class right now! We are reaching the point where students are ready for spring break and are having a difficult time paying attention and I might have found a solution to my problem! I remember Sitron bringing out the fidget toys and that was really helpful, but I’ve been hesitant to bring them into my classroom for fear that my students will play with them. After reading this though, I think that this is definitely worth a try because right now my “fidget toy” during a lesson is a student reading a book and I feel like it is against my educational code of ethics to tell a student to stop reading. Fantastic idea!

  8. I love this post! It’s a great topic that I would have never thought about the importance of. I was never given fidget toys throughout my entire school career, of course, until I entered the master’s program at Widener. So many years of schooling, yet I don’t get fidget toys until I’m into adulthood getting a higher education degree? I think that’s pretty interesting, but I also discovered, that they totally work for me!
    Sitting in the classroom on the weekends for hours upon hours, I find myself twiddling my thumbs and shaking my feet, not out of boredom, but because I’ve been sitting still in a chair for so long. Moving my body around helps me stay engaged. However, when I was introduced to a fidget toy in the classroom, it allowed me to give my hands something to do while being able to focus my mind on the material we were discussing.
    I do think that fidget toys would be a bit difficult to incorporate at the younger setting, depending on the audience. I can just see the children throwing the toys at each other, but I like that you mentioned establishing ground rules. That would be important at any age, but especially for the little ones!
    I also liked that you discussed using them in sexuality education classrooms, especially for those people who may be uncomfortable. It can be a touchy subject for people, and because it is still very much ‘taboo’, people tend to squirm when they have to talk or learn about it. Fidget toys could be a great distract-or for those who are feeling uncomfortable, and may even help to ease them a bit.
    Thanks again for this post!

  9. I appreciate this post for several reasons, and not simply because it validates my inability to sit still! Thank you for not only shedding light on fidgets, but providing valid suggestions for implementation. The practicality of the idea of setting ground rules and what to look for when choosing fidgets makes this info much more useful than merely just saying, “hey, use these.” THANKS!

    Justyn, I’m glad you said something about the doodling. For a long time, I was afraid teachers would be annoyed and assume that I wasn’t paying attention if I was doodling. And all I wanted to scream was, “I swear I’m listening! When I’m NOT doodling is when you’ve lost me!”

    In response to the “not sold on fidgets”, I understand where you are coming from. However, could you trade out a fidget for a cell phone during class time? That way, at least their brains are less occupied by mindless fidgeting then sexting their current crush.

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