The Case for Fidget Toys

As much as we all like to plan interactive staff trainings, all of us have portions of our trainings that are lecture or discussion-based.  And that’s OK, because sometimes we need to relay information in more structured settings.  What’s not OK about these types of sessions is that they can become boring and disengaging for our staff.  Oftentimes, facilitators think that they need to use entertainment to engage their audiences.  But you can’t have a video clip, game or song for every minute of the day.  My friend Karen Christopherson, the associate camp director at the Sherman Lake YMCA taught me about an awesome technique that should combat mental fatigue during these more tedious training sessions: the use of fidget toys!

For the past couple of years, I’ve hosted a regional training for the Michigan YMCA Camp Network with Karen and, most recently, Bill Hinton, of YMCA Camp Manitou-Lin.  We bring together admin staff from all the different YMCA camps in our state and go over all of the basics of camp leadership.  The first time we did the training, Karen showed up prepared with all sorts of stuff.  This woman is a top-notch facilitator: post-its, markers, photocopies—you name it.  But perhaps most interestingly to me, Karen also arrived with several baskets of what she calls “fidget toys”, little gadgets participants can play with to help them focus during training.  She placed a basket on each group’s table and, throughout our sessions, our participants fidgeted with them as they engaged in our lectures and exercises. 

My initial thought was what??  They have to FOCUS!  They have to LISTEN!  How could they possibly do that while PLAYING with toys??  But Karen was right and I was wrong.  As our day-long training progressed, I observed that this option helped our participants quite a bit.  Once I got home and did some research, I learned that science backs up Karen’s technique.

One of Karen's fidget toy baskets!  Photo compliments Karen Christopherson.

One of Karen's fidget toy baskets!  Photo compliments Karen Christopherson.

In an article in Fast Company, Jessica Hullinger describes fidgeting as a common coping mechanism for folks with ADD, but that it also provides benefits for many learners.  She cites research from Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright, who wrote a book called Fidget to Focus, who say, “If something we are engaged in is not interesting enough to sustain our focus, the additional sensory-motor input that is mildly stimulating, interesting, or entertaining allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating."  Essentially, if the main thing that’s going on (the lecture) doesn’t engage us enough to focus, adding in an extra input (such as fidgeting) will engage our brain enough to focus on the lecture.  Think about this: Ritalin, a common medication prescribed to increase focus of folks with ADD, is a stimulant.  It stimulates the brain...and so do fidget toys!

Sherman Lake YMCA spring staff enabling focus by fidgeting.  Photo by Karen Christopherson.

Sherman Lake YMCA spring staff enabling focus by fidgeting.  Photo by Karen Christopherson.

Fidget toys are largely touted as great tools for people with autism, ADD, ADHD and for kinesthetic learners.  In fact, this study showed that boys with ADD had better performance on a simple memory game.  In an interview with NPR, the study's lead author, Dustin Sarver from the UMiss Medical Center, said that movement increases alertness: "When I tell a kid, 'Sit down, don't move, stop tapping, stop bouncing,' the kids are spending all their mental energy concentrating on that rule. And that doesn't allow them to concentrate on what we're asking them to do, which is their homework."  Thus, if we enable our staff to use their pent up energy on something like a fidget toy, they will have extra brain power/space to focus on what we’re asking them to do, which is to listen to a long list of emergency procedures. 

Fidgeting and listening at Sherman Lake YMCA's spring staff training.  Photo by Karen Christopherson.

Fidgeting and listening at Sherman Lake YMCA's spring staff training.  Photo by Karen Christopherson.

The Sherman Lake YMCA has a strong emphasis on inclusivity, and Karen says that using fidget toys during training sets the tone for helping campers who may learn in many different ways—just like the staff.  “Not everyone is great at sitting and listening to a lecture,” she says.  “Think about your staff as you think about your campers, meeting them where they are and making sure they’re as successful as well.”  And, as a special note, these fidget toy collections can also be used for kids—I always like going for walks with kids when we need to have a talk about behavior, etc., or letting them play in the sand or skip stones while we break down a situation.  However, that’s not always possible.  If you and a camper are stuck inside discussing a behavioral issue or another tough topic, letting them work on a fidget toy is a great way to open up the brain and help them relax.

Karen has been building her fidget toy collection for more than 10 years.  She says it’s a trial-and-error process, where she might pick something up at a toy store or gift shop and see if it works.  The best toys are the ones that are quiet (a.k.a. not annoying!) to the facilitator/fellow participants.

To accelerate your collection, here is a list of top fidget toys recommended to me and thus to you by Karen and by Sylvia Van Meerten, an expert on autism and the executive director of Dragonfly Forest and owner of Camp Tall Tree:

1. Tangle Toys - Set of 3 Tangle Juniors - $8.99 on Amazon

2. Bug Out Bob by Toysmith - $9.11 on Amazon 

bug out bob.jpg

3. Wooden Fidget Puzzle by Toysmith - $5.49 on Amazon

4. Tinksky Magnetic Building Blocks - $28.99 for a 30 piece set on Amazon

6. Wacky Tracks by Toysmith Set of 2 - $10.95 on Amazon

**these make a slight clicking sound**

7. Koosh Balls (this 90s favorite is surprisingly expensive, from $6-$14 on Amazon)

What is your favorite fidget toy?  Leave your recommendations in the comments!