Sensory fidget toys (also known as sensory fiddle toys) are commonly recommended by occupational therapists or tried out by teachers for children who are constantly fiddling at their desk. For some children, a fiddle toy might just mean the difference between concentrating and attending on what the teacher is saying or missing much of the lesson. They don’t work for every child though and in some cases can cause more of a distraction!
The idea of a sensory fidget toy is to give the child a more appropriate and less distracting item to play with. For children who have poor awareness of where their body is (proprioceptive sense), fidgeting helps them to ‘know’ where they are. This means they then can concentrate on what is being said, instead of thinking about where their body is. For other children who seek out extra touch sensory inputs, having something to touch actually allows them to focus better. Fidgeting or fiddling with something sometimes helps to sharpen their attention.
Which children might benefit from a sensory fidget toy?
A child who is touching everything on their desk
The child who is constantly touching others who are around them
A child who is constantly doodling on the desk
The child who is fiddling with inappropriate items, e.g. scissors
Kim’s five tips for choosing sensory fidget toys
1. Choose a silent fiddle toy
The sensory fiddle toy must be silent. If the toy makes noise this can be distracting for the student. It also creates a distraction for the other children in the class and the teacher! When choosing a fidget toy make sure it doesn’t make any noise. You might need to squeeze and shake it in the shop to be sure.
2. Find fidget toys that don’t leak
Avoid any fidget toys that could leak if punctured. Unfortunately there are a number of sensory fiddle toys on the market that are not very robust. Some of them can leak quite easily if they get a hole. It’s important to look for a sensory toy that will withstand being squeezed and pulled and pushed over a long period of time. I also recommend avoiding fidget toys that have liquid or slime inside them just to be safe.
3. Consider the texture of the sensory toy
Choose a sensory texture that your child prefers – not all fidget toys suit all children! Every child is an individual. There is not one fiddle toy that will be suitable for all children. Some children prefer soft textures, like fabric. Other children like something that they can pull. Sometimes children like something they can squeeze. Or it might be that your child likes something that moves when the fiddle with it. It’s best to involve the child when choosing a fiddle toy rather than just making a choice for them. You might also find they already have something they are using which would be suitable like a piece of blu-tack or their watch strap.
4. Check the fiddle toy doesn’t create a distraction
Ensure the child is not zoning out due to the fidget toy. This one is particularly important to remember. The goal of the fiddle toy is to help with attention. Therefore, if it is causing the child to zone out it’s not helping with their learning. Fidget toys such as fidget spinners sometimes distract the child from their learning. Using a favourite toy as the child’s fidget (e.g. a Lego man) might also be distracting. Link in with the child’s teacher and use the tips for monitoring fidget toys below.
5. Discuss with your child’s school before sending in fidget toys
This tip is for parents. Ensure that your child’s school is happy for them to use the fiddle item (e.g. some schools ban blu-tack/fidget spinners). If your child likes to fiddle with something and you know it helps with their attention make sure you check with their teacher before you say they can use it at school. If your child has an occupational therapist they can help to choose an appropriate sensory fiddle toy. In cases where they don’t, you could link in with the school’s special education needs coordinator (SENCO) to see what the school would recommend and be happy for your child to use.
Bonus Tip – Make sure you monitor the fidget toy!
It is super important to make sure the sensory fiddle toys are helping rather than creating more of a distraction for the child or their classmates. Don’t expect the child to necessarily look more at the teacher when they are talking. Do, however, expect to see some of the following signs that the child is getting some benefits from their sensory fidget toy:
Has the fidget toy helped to improve the child’s focus in lessons? Check if the child is asking more questions or putting their hand up more frequently. Look to see if they are contributing more to lessons. Observe whether you are you having to ask them to ‘pay attention’ less frequently. Do you find they able to complete more work once back at their desk? These observations will help you to know if focus during teaching has improved.
Are they following instructions more accurately? Check if the child responds to instructions at a faster pace. Notice if they are asking you to repeat the instruction less frequently. These are signs that the child is paying more attention when the adult is speaking.
Can they answer more questions? This is a good sign that the child is listening to the lesson.
Is the child being less disruptive to their classmates and the lesson when using the fidget toy? It can be helpful to keep a record of the number of times a child is being disruptive without the fiddle toy and then compare this to when they have the fidget toy. This can let you see if there is a pattern of improvement in their behaviour.
Does the child stay in their seat longer/more when fiddling? This can also be an indicator that the fidget toy is helping the child stay focused on their learning.
What if the sensory fiddle toy is not helping?
For some children, fidget toys don’t make a lot of difference or can make them more distracted. In this case, remove the toy, or try a different fidget toy.
It is also important to use basic behaviour management strategies with fiddle toys. If the child is creating a distraction with they toy, this is not OK. Teachers should make sure the child is using the sensory toy appropriately. The toy should remain on the student’s desk. It must not cause a distraction to other students. The fidget toys must also be used how they are designed to be used. A toy designed to be squeezed should be squeezed. If it’s designed to be stretched it should be stretched. Even if the fiddle toy has been recommended by an occupational therapist it still needs to be used appropriately in the classroom.
Indications that the fidget toy might not be helping:
Is the child completely distracted by the toy and just not listening at all now? In this case you might find the child answers less questions and is less engaged. They will also not put their hand up and will likely be lost when it is time to sit down to complete work.
Is the fiddle toy becoming a distraction to others? Are other students looking to the toy? Or is it being put in their space? If this is occurring then it is likely not the best sensory fidget toy for your classroom.
Is the fidget toy becoming a play item (e.g. is the child is pretending their blu-tack is a car)? Again, it is suggested that something else it tried. The fiddle toy should help with focus and attention rather than distract.
Is the child making more noise now? This can sometimes happen if the fiddle toy is turned into a play item. Again, this is distracting for other students and likely indicates the child is not paying attention.
Is the child moving about more now? The aim of the fidget toy is to help with focus and engagement. If the child moves about more it has not helped and a different sensory strategy will need to be tried.
When could fidget toys be used at home?
When talking about sensory fidgets most of the information is typically related to the classroom. Fidget toys, however, can be helpful at home and when out and about as well. Some examples include:
At the dining table when the child is waiting for food or waiting for others to finish eating
During transitions e.g. home to school, home to shops, home to grandparents
As a soother/comforter during times when the child is more anxious – especially if the fidget toy can fit in their pocket and they can fiddle without others noticing
Any time the child has to wait e.g. the shops, doctors, in the car waiting for siblings
What can I use as a fidget?
Many different items can be used as a fiddle toy. These also don’t need to be expensive shop brought toys. Sometimes children find something as simple as blu-tack a great fidget! One child I worked with liked a small piece of soft material. As noted above it is important to find a fidget toy that works for the individual child. There is no one size fits all sensory fidget! Every child is different. Some other ideas are below:
Drawing or mindful colouring
Twist & lock blocks
Textured fabric – e.g. sheepskin or velvet
Putty or play dough
Physio resistance ball / egg
Mesh & marble
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