The Science Behind Fidget Toys

fidget toys
fidget toys

While the fidget spinner craze may have reached its height several years ago, these toys are still incredibly popular. In May of 2017, all ten of Amazon’s top ten best-sellers were fidget toys and the Fidget Cube raised $6.4 million on Kickstarter. Though many consider fidget toys a fad that will slowly disappear like the Pogs and Tamagotchis of decades past, psychology research suggests they’re here to stay and they may provide practical benefits for both children and adults.

Here’s what you need to know about the science behind fidget toys including the potential mental and physical health benefits they may provide.

Why Do We Fidget?

While the term “fidget spinner” brings a specific object to mind, fidgeting is nothing new and neither are fidget toys. If you’ve ever sat in a stuffy conference room repeatedly clicking a ballpoint pen, you’ve done your fair share of fidgeting. Merriam Webster defines ‘fidget’ as “uneasiness or restlessness as shown by nervous movements.” We fidget when we’re bored, when we’re uncomfortable, and when we’re restless. Fidgeting can also be an indication of anxiety, but what do scientists say about it?

According to a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, fidgeting is a reflection of a wandering mind. The study followed the behavior of participants as they watched a 40-minute lecture video. Researchers found that while attention to and retention of the lecture material declined with time and, as predicted, fidgeting increased. What the researchers didn’t predict, however, was that fidgeting and retention were related. Fidgeting actually helped the participants retain more of the material.

These findings are consistent with anecdotal evidence linking fidget toys to improved focus and reduced anxiety in the classroom for children with attention or anxiety issues. While more research is needed, several preliminary studies show similar results.

The Benefits of Fidget Toys

Fidgeting is often interpreted as a nervous habit, particularly among children and adults with anxiety disorders. People with anxiety often feel a constant need to be on the move which can create challenges at school and in the workplace. Fidget toys are self-regulation tools which can help the individual exercise the impulse for motion without negatively affecting attention and focus.

Previous research shows that brief diversions from a task can actually help people concentrate and may improve performance. Alejandro Lleras, professor at the University of Illinois Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Urbana, suggests that our senses become used to a stimulus over time – like the same way you get used to a certain smell in the room. Lleras suggests that taking breaks from the stimulus may improve focus over the long-term.

In some ways, fidget toys provide the sort of distraction the brain needs without drawing focus away from the task at hand.

Here are some of the additional potential benefits of fidget toys:

  • They might improve scholastic achievement in students. In a 2006 pilot study, sixth-grade students were asked to use stress balls during both direct instruction and independent study. Students who used the stress balls exhibited improvements in attitude, attention, writing abilities, and peer interaction.
  • They can help relieve anxiety. Anxiety can cause restlessness, but fidget toys provide an outlet for anxious behavior. By giving individuals something to keep their hands busy, fidget toys can have a calming effect. One study found fidget toys relieved pre-surgery anxiety in adults.
  • They may help people with ADHD focus on a task. People, particularly children, with ADHD tend to fidget but the more they move, the better they focus. A study conducted at UC Davis revealed that overall movement improved performance on cognitively demanding tasks.
  • They can stimulate the brain stem with movement. The brain stem plays a crucial role in controlling essential bodily functions like respiration, heart rate, and consciousness. Movement, even just with the hands, helps keep the brain stem alert and stimulated.
  • They might help soothe PTSD sufferers. Fidgeting is a self-soothing behavior that can help with various forms of anxiety as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are classified as a rapid stress management technique (RSMT) which helps draw focus away from distressing symptoms like flashbacks, panic attacks, and negative emotions.

While fidget spinners may have the potential to help with symptoms of anxiety and other disorders, they are not a substitute for medical treatment. If you’re struggling with mental health issues, talk to your doctor to confirm your diagnosis and to discuss options for the best form of treatment. You might also consider online therapy to get the mental health help you need from home.

What to Look for in Fidget Toys

All fidget toys are not created equal. From stress balls to fidget spinners, different toys offer different potential benefits. According to an article in Scientific American, therapists recommend fidget toys that require tactile versus visual attention – especially in a classroom setting. Fidget spinners require hand-eye coordination which may draw focus away from the task at hand while toys like the Fidget Cube offer a variety of tactile sensations. These fidget toys are more classroom-appropriate because they don’t draw focus away from the teacher or draw the attention of other students.

Stimulating the tactile system can help improve sensory processing along with related emotions and behaviors. For example, children and adults who have sensory processing differences often require higher levels of sensory input. For these individuals, tactile fidget tools are particularly beneficial. Some research suggests tactile fidget tools may help teens with behavioral and emotional problems learn how to calm themselves and control their impulses.

We all work differently under different circumstances. Some people require total silence to focus while others feel more productive with a little background noise. If you or your child feels nervous, anxious, or unfocused on a task, try using a fidget toy. You may just find that giving the hands something to do enables the mind to focus more fully on the task at hand.

About Sensory Edge 174 Articles
Articles written by SensoryEdge are a combined effort of the SensoryEdge publishing staff. At SensoryEdge our focus is to educate, inform, and inspire each person caring for children to be and do their very best. It is not always easy and sometimes we don't take action (or we take the wrong action) because of a lack of understanding the real issues. We hope that the conversations that occur here will help in some small way better the lives of children, their families, and the professionals who work with them.