Tools or Toys?

By Christina Gavin, Inclusion Specialist

teacher with fidgetsIf you are a teacher or a parent, you have probably heard of a popular gadget called the “fidget spinner.” Fidget spinners are just one of the many types of sensory objects used by teachers and therapists to assist students with attention and focus. With the recent hype of fidget spinners, many people are asking: are “fidgets” tools or toys?

What are some common examples of fidgets used in classrooms?
Putty, squeeze balls, coiled bracelets, chew fidgets, move and sit cushions, foot/chair bands, tactile fidgets, weighted lap fidgets, and tangle fidgets, to name a few.

What does the science say?
There is some research to suggest that sensory objects may help with focus, attention and work production (Stalvey & Brasell, 2006). NYU Researcher Dr. Michael Karlesky is taking a look at fidgets, specifically. He is investigating what kinds of objects people fidget with when they work. “One thing people often report is that fidgeting with an object in the hand helps them to stay focused when doing a long task or sitting still and attentive in a long meeting.” One theory is that fidget tools may help people seek the optimal level of stimulation they need in a given environment. If you’d like to learn more about Dr.Karlesky’s study, the link is below.

How do teachers and schools respond to the popularity of spinners, cubes and other novel gadgets?
Schools have had mixed reactions to the fidget spinner craze. Some schools have banned fidget spinners altogether, while others have developed guidelines for teachers around the use of popular fidget tools. As with any novel device, it is important to teach a student how and when to use a tool appropriately. Some schools have allowed fidget spinners with limitations, such as being allowed during a movement break, recess, or choice time. One elementary school principal said, “We need to teach children the difference” between using objects as tools or toys. Fidget spinners might be too distracting or overstimulating for some children to be used effectively as tools.“If a child wants to play with theirs, there is always recess or after school, not during class."

How do teachers know that a sensory tool or fidget tool is helping a student?
Occupational Therapist Erin O’Neill offers a few helpful tips to look out for. If a fidget tool is helping and not distracting, she says, the student will be able to have the tool present while participating in lessons or work. Erin also cautions about what teachers may notice when first using a fidget tool with a student. Children are naturally curious, and may become inattentive or excited initially. Over time however, the teacher should notice that students will independently seek out the tools that they find most useful, and demonstrate increased attention and participation in the classroom.“I often see that students are able to self-identify if move and sit cushions, weighted lap pads, or other tools are a good fit in the classroom, and they will self-seek these tools.”In Erin’s view, when sensory tools are helping, teachers should notice increased focus and increased time on task.

fidget spinnerAre fidgets ever useful in settings outside of school?
Researcher Katherine Isbister says fidget spinners are not just a fad, and believes children and adults alike seek out fidget items. “Fidgeting didn’t start with the spinner craze. If you’ve ever clicked a ballpoint pen again and again, you’ve used a fidget item.” Parents might want to consider if fidgets can be useful outside of school, too. A move and sit cushion could be helpful for kids while doing homework, at the dinner table, or when eating at a restaurant. Hand-held fidgets might prevent children from touching objects in public places, or keep a child busy or calm while waiting on line at the grocery store.

Are "fidgets" tools or toys?
Many people still disagree about fidget spinners. But it would stand to reason that any sensory object, when used with a purpose in mind, can be taught to be used as a tool or accommodation. While fidget spinners are not permitted in some classrooms, there are hundreds of other options for teachers to choose from. Rather than focus on any one particular type of fidget like spinners, teachers can instead determine the purpose of the fidget, and then guide children to use an alternative fidget appropriately.


Dr.Karlesky’s study:
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