Fidgeting in the Classroom: Why & How Some Teachers Are Promoting It

If you’ve worked in education at any point in the last 5 to 10 years, then you’ve seen it all: fidget spinners, pop-its, stress balls, infinity cubes, putty, slime, and more—and you’ve probably had your fill. (We don’t blame ya.)

But what if these distractions could be used to your advantage? What if instead of being a source of frustration, they could serve as a resource for enhanced learning?

Good news: They can be! More than just a fun fad, fidget toys have been shown to offer several benefits when it comes to kids’ ability to engage and absorb information in the classroom. Still on the fence? Check out a few of the reasons teachers are promoting fidget toys in the classroom, and some of the ways they’re doing so, below.

Increased focus and concentration. The average attention span of adults is about 15 minutes, so can you imagine how much shorter it must be for kids? Oh that’s right; you probably can! But, turns out, there is a remedy for inattention—and no, it’s not the old-fashioned “sit still and look forward” approach. It’s movement. And that just so happens to be what fidgeting is—repeated movement in the hands or feet.

So, that kid who constantly chews on pins and doodles while you’re teaching? They probably aren’t blatantly ignoring your lesson but trying to keep up! As long as the secondary activity doesn’t call for too much brain power, research suggests that doing two things at once can actually boost attention levels. In fact, in one study, children who doodled remember 29% more information on memory tests than children who did not. 

But it can’t be as simple as implementing fidget activities in your classroom, or can it? It is! Just be sure the fidget activity/toy is tactile in nature, as these activities are not as distracting to the brain as visual and auditory ones. 

Emotional regulation. One of the biggest issues teachers face daily is emotional outbursts. And if anything is distracting, it’s these. When a kid loses it, not only is it bound to take up at least 15 minutes of ample teaching time, but it’s also likely to send your entire class into a tizzy, causing all of your carefully composed lesson plans to go out the window. 

But with fidget toys, you can better manage your classroom. Per a wealth of evidence, fidget toys reduce tension, and having these little gadgets on-hand will encourage kids to master the practice of self-regulation—that is, coping with emotions constructively and independently. The best part? There’s no work on your end! Just introduce the item as a “toy that can make us feel better” (to younger students) or as exactly what it is (to older ones), and leave the rest to them. Once kids get a feel for the toy *pun intended*, they won’t need any convincing; before long, you’ll catch them seeking it out on their own, and you won’t know what to do with all the extra time!

Sensory stimulation. We can all show sensory-avoidant and sensory-seeking behaviors sometimes: when we can’t hear ourselves over a crowd, when the smell of something makes us sick, when we enjoy the texture of certain foods, etc. And for children, being introduced to sensory stimulating items and situations is extremely important as these help create the neural connections required for complex thinking and appropriately processing sensory information. In other words, more sensory exposure increases kids’ brain power and makes dealing with sensory highs and lows a whole lot easier. And since fidgeting naturally engages the senses, it’s a perfect way to help kids get there.

So, what does this mean for the classroom? That in integrating fidget toys, you’ll be able to mitigate some of the negative consequences of over- and under-stimulation (i.e. meltdowns, disruptions, daydreaming, anxiety attacks, and others that make teaching and learning hard) while encouraging the more positive ones (i.e. concentration, cooperation, and more cheerful temperaments). These effects will be especially evident in children more prone to sensory issues like those with ADHD or sensory processing disorders.

Decreased stress and anxiety. Another reason more and more teachers are considering fidget toys a “must-have” is because of the stress relief they provide. When levels of cortisol increase in the body, our muscles begin preparing for sudden movement in the form of “fight” or “flight.” Without exertion, however, all that pent up energy has nowhere to go, and we feel it in the form of stress and anxiety. The same is true for little humans. That’s why fidgeting is so important; it gives our muscles what we want and need when under stress: relief. And considering an estimated 1 in 3 children has anxiety, and anxiety is associated with difficulty remembering, processing, and retrieving information, we’re betting students finding relief is as important to you as it is to them.

For easy access, we suggest keeping a box of quiet fidget toys available to students at all times. Place a few at the back of the room—or better yet, one at every desk! However you do it, just make sure your students know that these are at their disposal whenever they need.

As you can see, fidget toys really can make a world of difference in how kids behave, function, and perform in the classroom! So, what do ya think? Ready to stock your classroom full of them?
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