The Key to Fidgets

by FS&TS

By Brenna Patterson, MS OTR/L

In the past few months, fidget spinners have become all the rage and it appears most kids (and pets!) have found uses for these gadgets. While these spinners are fun for the fingers and minds, it also appears that they have distracted kids from school activities as well. There is merit to these fidget spinners, but to clear the name of “fidgets,” I wanted to provide information about how to find the optimal fidget for your child and how you can tell that this fidget is effective.

Fidgets, by definition, are objects or tools that a child or adult uses to improve their attention to activities that they are doing. Having a fidget often provides sensory input that a person may not be getting from their environment and enabling them to filter out the distracting input they otherwise may have had difficulty filtering out. Contexts for “fidgets,” may include work meetings, lessons at school, doing homework, waiting a turn during a game, and focusing on a conversation with a friend or family member.

For some people, the tactile and proprioceptive input provided by writing or typing is sufficient to improve their attention to what they are doing in the moment. However, for other people this may not be enough and their mind may require additional textures to the tactile input or squeezing to decrease this “wandering” or “seeking” for this input. For an item or object to be considered a fidget, it must be small in size, improve the person’s attention, be safe, have a reasonable cost, and is not distracting to others around them. Thus, if the fidget makes additional sound it may be more distracting than supporting attention (For example, has someone around you clicked and unclicked a ballpoint pen over and over again and driven you crazy to the point that this is all you hear? This is an example of that!).  

Fidget Spinners provide proprioceptive input through squeezing the middle circle, as well as tactile input through the smooth texture of the plastic. Some of the fidget spinners have visual input provided as well, such as lights, which may actually impede someone’s attention or the attention of others around them. If you find your attention going to and staying with the fidget spinner, this is not an effective fidget for you! When looking into fidgets, it is important to consider certain textures or input that the person may avoid/dislike, when they appear most “fidgety,” for determining when it will be used, and try to use sensations that are sought after by that person-this will be most calming and supportive. In addition, consider rules you may need to introduce when instructing or educating your child on the fidget and its uses so that the fidget is used well and does not get taken away or accidentally used in a distracting way!

There are a number of low-tech fidgets that can be found all around you, and you may already be using them without knowing! Rubber bands, coins, paper clips, links on a chain, slime, theraputty, stress balls, and foam blocks are all examples of low-tech fidgets. This is not to say that you cannot use the nice and novel fidgets-these have their benefits as well! Everyday objects can also be used as fidgets and wanted to provide these as options. Some of the newer fidgets provide a variety of textures and pushing/pulling opportunities; for example, there is a “fidget cube,” that many children have reported as helpful to increase their attention during the day.

One of the keys to occupational therapy is finding practical and functional ways to improve a skill that is required for daily life, and everyone needs to have attention for activities, whether these are hobbies, recreational, or work-related activities. These are some of the functional and practical ways to increase attention during the activity, and I hope that this was helpful in exploring some of the options. Please see your occupational therapist if you have further questions or would like more information on what fidgets would be beneficial for your child.