By: Robyn Colley, OTR/L
Fidget cubes, spinners, and the old-fashioned stress ball. Fidgeting is gaining hype these days. Teachers are begging to keep spinners out of their classrooms. The distraction, many claim, is causing more harm than good. This leads to the questions: Are fidgets just glorified toys for children? Are they meant for classroom use? Do they have real benefits?
As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I was trained on how the brain develops. What fuels attention, and why some children struggle. OT’s are trained to teach children how to pay attention, what their bodies need. We know the brain and the body communicate with one another all day long, and therefore, attention is not just a brain issue- it involves the whole body. Fidgeting can be a helpful tool. It can give the brain what it needs to alert, to calm, and to focus. Understanding the why behind it may be helpful when deciding if a fidget is right for your child or student.
Fidgets create movement which is alerting to the brain
The brain stem is what alerts us and helps us stay regulated. The brain needs to wake up and stay awake when expected to attend. Some children’s brains can wake up but not sustain. Some need help to even awaken. This is where movement can help. Fidgets come in all shapes and sizes. You can even fidget with your feet! Movement, through the legs or the hands such as doodling, can help open up the communication from the body to brain sending signals to awaken and alert!
Fidgets offer deep pressure which is calming and grounding
Consider something in the hand that is heavy or weighted. Deep pressure is similar to a massage- reminding the muscles that they are alive which sends information to the emotional parts of the brain reminding them to stay calm.
Fidgets allow for oral input which is centering
Imagine a fidget at the end of a pencil or in the form of a necklace. The mouth is a very organizing part of the body. Something to chew on or suck on can be just what a child needs to keep their brain active and their body centered.
Fidgets give tactile input which can keep the brain engaged
Why do you think humans enjoy petting their dog or cat? The soft fur feels so nice on the skin. Touch, or tactile input, can alert or calm depending on the texture itself. Something as simple as a piece of satin taped underneath a child’s desk can provide enough tactile input to keep some children’s attention.
Fidgets allow for repetition which is also grounding
Repetition is movement. Movement is alerting. Repetition is the same motion or input over and over which is calming. Remember, the brain needs to be in a quiet state of alert. There should be a balance between awake but calm. We don’t always want to calm our children down. Sometimes we need to calm them UP! Alert the brain but quiet the emotional centers.
So don’t be afraid to fidget and to let children fidget. Many of my written class notes from my OT School days have doodles in the margins. And research now supports how doodling helps the brain learn. When chosen and used properly, certain fidgets can bring out the best in so many learners!
Check out the fidget assortment at Abilitations and find that just right fidget for your student(s).