by Terri Griffin
The change in learning environment can cause anxiety and distraction. Fidgets are an easy way to help learners and first-time teachers at home stay focused and on track, even (especially) when tasks seem dull, tedious, or boring.
Research shows that physical activity — even a little foot-tapping or gum chewing — increases levels of the neurotransmitters in the brain that control focus and attention. A subtle fidget tool may help block out distractions, fight boredom, and increase productivity.
People on the autism spectrum may find using fidget tools soothing and calming as the tools help them meet their sensory needs. For people with ADHD, the tools can provide a movement outlet that allows them to focus and concentrate better. Some people with anxiety may also benefit from using fidget tools.
The purpose of a fidget is to act as a sensory filter. It is a tool that can help with self-regulation, attention, and calming. It is not a toy. The wrong fidget, or a fidget used the wrong way, can end up being distracting or disruptive, the opposite of the desired effect.
Fidgeting must be deliberate to be effective. Intentional fidgets allow you to self-regulate in a controlled, constructive fashion. An effective fidget doesn’t distract from the primary task because it is something that the user doesn’t have to think about. It provides an activity that uses a sense other than the one required for the primary task. For example, a quiet manipulative using the hands while looking at or listening to the teacher can help promote increased focus.
Fidget tools should be used intermittently. People can become desensitized to the sensory benefits of an object, so use it for short periods at times when concentration is most needed or swap between fidgets over the course of the day. When not in use, fidget tools should be kept out of sight.
Fidget tools come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. Not every fidget will work for every person. Different types of fidgets can meet different sensory needs. There is no one size fits all sensory fidget.
Many different items can be used as a fidget tool. They do not need to be expensive or even something purchased. Sometimes people find something as simple as a small piece of soft material. What matters is to find a tool that works for the individual person.
Along with being quiet and safe, what makes a good fidget tool?
- Can be used without causing distraction to the user or others around them
- Can be used without looking, so the user can focus on the task or lesson
- Meets the user’s sensory needs (e.g., texture, shape, sensation)
- Fits the user’s physical abilities (in particular, motor skills and hand strength)
Some things to consider for choosing an appropriate fidget for your needs.
Who – Consider who will be using the fidget. Do they crave or dislike certain textures? Do they like to pull or pinch or squeeze? Do they crave pressure or proprioceptive input? How much strength do they have to manipulate a fidget? Is the person an oral seeker – are they likely to chew and bite it?
Material – Fidgets are made in in a variety of material. Plastic, metal, rubber, stone, and latex components can create items that feel soft, squishy, hard, wiry, or malleable.
Motion – Some people are drawn to a fidget because of the motion used to manipulate it. Consider what form of movement is most soothing — stretching, twisting, flexing, building, spinning, shaping, clicking, etc.
Size – Many fidgeters like to keep something in a pocket, so that it is easily transported, discreet, and can be used without anyone seeing. Small fidgets can also be ideal for one-handed use and finger-tip manipulation. However, items that are a bit larger and chunkier can feel more substantial and engage more muscles and more parts of the brain.
Appearance – Even though fidgeting is primarily a tactile experience, what it looks like can matter. Some fidgeters are drawn to playful colors, looks, and shapes. Because memory and recall have been shown to improve when more areas of the brain are activated, additional stimulus created by the visual, auditory, and emotional experience of using a fidget tool is likely to have a positive impact.
Durability – Many fidget tools are fairly inexpensive and vary in durability and washability. Hard plastic and metal are likely to stand the test of time. Rubbery or gel-filled items tend to pick up more dirt and can be more difficult to clean.
Weight – Some fidget users prefer items that have a little heft or weight. Of course, they should not be too heavy or cumbersome.
Understanding the variety of sensory needs can help find the tools or resources that would be best for each individual. You may want to try a few to figure out which tools best help with calm and focus.
Stimming, short for Self-Stimulation, refers to self-soothing behaviors. For those who find repetitive motions to be calming, these fidget tools might be good choices: Tangles, Loopez, Gyrobi, SwingOs, sensory stones, marble Boinks, Dimpl, pencil topper fidgets, thinking putty
Some with SPD find certain textures particularly soothing. Several fidget tools offer interesting tactile experiences. Here are some examples: Tangle Therapy, spaghetti balls, textured sensory ruler, Velcro strips, sensory stones, fidget balls, pencil grips, Aku ring
Fidget tools can also help build fine motor skills, strengthen finger muscles, and help develop eye-hand coordination. These are some fidgets that provide dual benefits: Loopez, Gyrobi, Caterpinch, Twisters, squeeze fidgets, thinking putty, pencil grips
Claflin, Carol, PhD. “The Benefits of Fidget Tools: What Research Says About ADHD AND SPD.” Retrieved from https://therapyshoppe.com/therapists-corner/117-the-benefits-of-fidget-tools
Grogan, Alisha MOT, OTR/L. “The Quintessential Guide to Fidgets for Kids.” Retrieved from
Griffin, Kim, OT. “Top Five Tips for Choosing Fidget Toys at Home and School.” Retrieved from
Isbister, Katherine. “Fidget toys aren’t just hype.” Scientific American: The conversation. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fidget-toys-arent-just-hype
WorkSMART Blog. ”Finding the Best Fidget Toy.” Retrieved from http://blog.trainerswarehouse.com/finding-best-fidget-toy
WorkSMART Blog. “Finding the Right Fidget for Any Sensory Diet.” Retrieved from
Rotz, Ronald, PhD & Wright, Sarah. “The body-brain connection: How fidgeting sharpens focus.” Retrieved from https://www.additudemag.com/focus-factors
The Efficacy of Fidget Toys in School Settings for Children with Attention Difficulties and Hyperactivity
Mennillo, Michelle. “Stop touching things! The role of fidget toys” http://occupationaltherapychildren.com.au/stop-touching-things-the-role-of-fidget-toys
Stalvey Sheryl and Brasell, Heather. “Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners.” The Journal of At-Risk Issues. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ853381.pdf
Rohrberger, Amanda. “The Efficacy of Fidget Toys in a School Setting for Children with Attention Difficulties and Hyperactivity.” Ithaca College Theses.
American Occupational Therapy Association. Fact sheet: Occupational therapy using a sensory integration-based approach with adult populations. Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Professionals/HW/Using-Sensory-Integration-Based-Approach-With-Adult-Populations.aspx