Kate Parker

Can fidget toys help pupils’ concentration?

Fidget spinners have dropped out of the headlines, but the trend for this type of toy continues, with pupils claiming that they help hone their attention. Kate Parker explores whether these toys can become classroom concentration tools

Can fidget toys help pupils’ concentration?

Look, Katie, look,” my three-year-old niece squeals as she waves a colourful, dinosaur-shaped toy at me during a FaceTime call.

“What is that?” I ask my sister, a primary school teacher, who is just off camera.

She sighs. “It’s called a Pop-it. They’re basically the new fidget spinners; I confiscated loads of them from my Year 5s last term.”

Fidget toys (small, tactile toys that can be moved, stretched or squeezed) often become playground trends. But unlike other trendy objects, these toys are designed with an educational purpose in mind. According to those who make and market them, they are not meant to be used in the playground, but in the classroom, where they can help pupils – particularly those with special educational needs – to concentrate.

Many teachers, however, are sceptical. “There is a very strong correlation between how trendy they are, and how many children suddenly need them,” says Amy Forrester, director of behaviour at Cockermouth School in Cumbria.

“You’ll know as soon as there is a trend for one of these toys because pupils who don’t have any learning needs start asking to use them in the classroom. In reality, they just want to play with something that’s cool and pretend that they need it. Schools are quite quick to shut those things down, and say, ‘No, you don’t need that.’”

But should schools think twice before banning these toys from their classrooms? Are the manufacturers right? Do they, in fact, support children to focus?

Much of the research in this area centres on children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) – generally accepted to be the learners who are most likely to benefit from the use of such toys.

For example, in 2015, behavioural science professor Julie Schweitzer published a small study that suggested children with ADHD who are supported to bounce, wriggle or otherwise move gently in place have better concentration levels than those who are not.

And more recently, in New Zealand, researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) and Mātai Medical Research Institute found that fidgeting may help those with ADHD to concentrate. Specifically, they found that fidgeting increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in concentration during decision-making tasks.

A tool for everyone

It is not only children with ADHD who may benefit from fidget toys, though. In 2006, Sheryl Stalvey and Heather Brasell investigated the effects of allowing 6th grade (Year 7) students in a school in rural Georgia to use stress balls during direct instruction and independent practice. They observed that “the frequency of distraction incidents decreased” when students used the stress balls.

In addition, writing skills improved, and the pair found that “based on journal entries, all types of learners thought that their attitude, attention, writing abilities and peer interaction improved due to stress ball use”.

So, fidget toys can help children to concentrate. But how? The answer lies in understanding exactly what fidgeting is and why it happens, suggests psychologist Carey Heller.

Broadly, fidgeting is defined as making small movements with your body, usually your hands and feet. Everyone fidgets, and there are lots of different reasons for this, Heller explains. For those with ADHD, it can be because they struggle to focus. However, for others, it can be because they are bored or anxious.

“The way you fidget can be different based on the reason the fidget is occurring. Some people just like that extra stimulation, and it could be that the task they are doing isn’t providing enough,” he explains.

“It’s like some people listen to music when they’re working, while others prefer absolute silence. For some people, if the task is not inherently motivating in itself, or not stimulating enough, they may want something extra to do alongside it.

“Essentially, fidgeting creates an external stimulation that, in turn, can make someone feel more interested in the task ahead, so they focus better.”

Fidgeting is a natural occurrence, but it’s an occurrence that has the potential to be disruptive in the classroom. If a pupil is constantly swinging back on their chair or tapping a pencil, this can be distracting to those around them.

Using a fidget toy, the thinking goes, can help to channel a pupil’s need to fidget into a less disruptive movement.

So, does that mean that teachers should always allow pupils to use fidget toys in lessons? According to Sydney Zentall, professor emerita of educational studies at Purdue University, Indiana, confiscating the toys can be unhelpful.

“It’s not useful for teachers to remove them,” she says. “I know that they help a significant number of children, and not just those who have specific disorders. There’s a huge range of children who need additional stimulation: often they don’t stand up or move around the classroom for large periods of time, and that can result in sensory deprivation. Fidget toys can provide that sensory experience.”

However, Zentall says there are some types of task where a fidget toy is more likely to help students than others. “The best type of tasks to use these toys [in] are listening tasks or mental computation tasks,” she explains. “If you need to write down answers, the toy, obviously, won’t be effective. But if you can hold it in your hand, without it interfering with listening and mental computation, then it can reduce fidgeting activity and improve test completion.”

Fidget toys could also be useful for intervention groups. At Broadlands Academy in Bath, fidget toys have been introduced for a small group of children who were taken out of mainstream provision as part of an intervention to re-engage them with learning.

Initially, children were given a range of fidget toys to try out, but a wooden seesaw that sits under the desk, and on which students balance their feet, proved to be most popular. Vice-principal Chris Jackson says that he has seen a noticeable difference in concentration levels since the toys were introduced.

“We removed the need for fidgeting with their hands, with their pencils and pens, and allowed them to fidget with their feet. The students really liked it, and at the start of each lesson, they’d come in, find the equilibrium on the seesaw – and those couple of minutes really helped to settle them and sustain concentration throughout the day,” he says.

Jackson says the school is excited to roll the seesaws out to mainstream lessons but isn’t oblivious to the problems that might cause in terms of demand.

“A few years ago, we had all the fidget spinners and other toys come through the classroom – and there may have been a legitimate need for one or two children, but no plan was put in place on how to manage the desire for them in the classroom, which meant that everyone wanted one,” he says.

Everything in moderation

When every child has one, Jackson says, fidget toys can become incredibly distracting in the classroom. Often, when there is an abundance of the toys, it’s because children have brought them into school from home – this, in turn, can fuel competition about who has got the newest or biggest one.

The solution here would be for schools to buy them directly, but when resources are tight, departments won’t be able to stretch to buying hundreds of fidget toys.

“With the seesaw, we’d need to ensure it was included in a SEND plan, and make it clear that the only pupils who can have it are the ones identified,” says Jackson.

However, Zentall points out that fidget toys do not need to be expensive – or even trendy – in order to be effective. She suggests that pipe cleaners can be great tools to provide subtle stimulation for pupils. Not only are pipe cleaners low cost, they don’t spin or make a noise, meaning they’re less likely to disrupt other learners.

Heller agrees that when choosing fidget toys, schools should look for something that will cause minimal disruption, adding that fidget toys need to be something pupils can use “mindlessly”.

Jackson is certain that’s why the seesaws have worked at his school: they are out of sight, under the desk, and they aren’t particularly flashy.

“I had a go of it, and yes, it’s fun for 10 seconds, but you quickly realise that actually, there’s nothing to it – it’s boring for those who don’t need it,” he says. “Whereas, for some of these students who can’t sit still, it really supports them.”

Indeed, even Forrester, who is sceptical about the value of fidget toys, says that when toys are low attention and low disruption, they don’t cause an issue.

“I’ve seen pupils use stress balls, and it’s literally just something they have under their table. If it’s so subtle you can’t even notice a child using it, then that’s absolutely fine. Whereas if a child has a huge pop-it toy or fidget spinner, it can cause a lot of disruption, and I’m hard pushed to believe anyone really needs one of those in the lesson,” she says.

So rather than banning fidget toys outright, perhaps it would be more helpful for schools to stress that these objects should be treated as fidget “tools” – and that, if used, they must be small, simple and kept out of sight.

Kate Parker is schools and colleges content producer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 19 November 2021 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…Fidget toys”

Other articles in this issue