Fidget toys: Fact or fiction and some food for thought
One of the latest fads seems to focus on the supposed need every child has for a fiddle toy. What do we make of this? Do we follow the herd and rush off to buy the latest product, so skillfully marketed as being essential for school success or do we scorn the idea, keep our money in the bank and tell our children to get on with it?
The hype isn’t all wrong. Most of us like to fiddle and find it helps us focus. Some don’t and can keep quite still while attending to important matters. In general lots of children benefit from being allowed to engage in some subtle behaviours when rooted to their school desks and listening to the teacher. Those benefitting most from ‘fiddling’ tend to have problems with concentration. It’s become customary for helping professionals and even teachers to suggest fiddle toys to improve attention span.
But what kinds of fiddling would be most helpful, and following this, what kinds of fiddle toys would be really beneficial?
It’s easy to figure this out with a little knowledge of how the brain is structured and how it functions.
An area of the brain called the sensory cortex receives and processes information coming in through the senses, including hearing. So in order to attend and listen to spoken language, this area needs to be functioning well. A closer look at the sensory cortex will show that the brain pays a great deal of attention to information coming in from the fingertips and hands. It also pays much attention to the lips and mouth. This is shown by the huge area of
brain dedicated to processing information from these body parts. Here’s a picture to illustrate this:
In practical terms, this means that when we engage our hands or mouths, we are stimulating large areas of the sensory cortex – leading to better processing of, amongst other things, auditory information. We are even more efficient in processing information when we combine mouth and hand movements, such as you might see children doing when they continually put their fingers in their mouths.
This tells us that activities engaging the hands will help focus. So fiddle toys are useful.
But what kinds of fiddle toys?
A second fact to know about the brain is that for most efficient functioning, we need to use both sides of the brain. The specialized areas of the right and left brains are needed in order to hear and also understand what we are hearing. This means that a way of fiddling that will help to stimulate both hemispheres and improve rapid communication between the two brains will be most beneficial.
This would involve integrating the two sides of the body. As an example, rolling a pencil between the thumbs and fingers of both hands requires coordination of the hands and so good communication between the two brains. This is an excellent way of fiddling!
Less effective would be to twiddle a pencil in one hand, with the other lying idle. That would not allow for brain integration.
Other examples of excellent ways of fiddling that need the use of two hands working together:
- take a ball of plasticine or prestik or any other material and use both hands (thumb and forefinger) to mould it into a cube
- twist a paper clip or pipe cleaner into a design
- link the forefingers and make first the right finger pull the left finger and then switch. Repeat a few times, then link the remaining fingers in the same way, one at a time and have them each alternatively pull one another.
These activities need next to no financial investment yet can be hugely beneficial to improving focus through brain stimulation. They are also not causing visual or auditory distractions in class, nor causing envy and desire in young children.
From a neurodevelopmental perspective, fiddling is a valuable tool to use for improving brain function. Toys that fail to engage both sides of the body equally might be less effective. As with all therapeutic movements, it is seldom necessary to buy expensive equipment.