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Fidget to focus

An Occupational Therapist view on fidgets – is it a tool or toy?

Fidget spinners driving you crazy? An Occupational Therapist view on fidgets – is it a tool or toy?


Ask anybody about fidgets and the first thing that pops into mind is the fidget spinner craze – with all its positive and negative opinions and emotions.  We’ve recently been bombarded with information on fidget spinners through social media and other platforms but the concept of fidgeting is nothing new and has been around for ages.  In 1844 a German physician Heinrich Hoffmann already wrote a poem “Fidgety Phil”.


There is a lot more to fidgets than just fidget spinners.  It comes in different shapes, sizes, and textures.  It can be a stress ball, tangle, pipe cleaner, fidget footband or even just doodling.


So let us look at what’s really important when we talk about fidgets.


It is firstly important to look at the characteristics of respectful and effective fidgeting.  We all know people that tend to drum their fingers on objects, click a pen continuously, tap their feet, hum a song or doodle while they are doing something else or listening to somebody. This usually gets worse if they are in a boring or stressful situation.  So what of the above examples would you classify as respectful and effective fidgeting? It might be effective for you to drum you fingers or click your pen but it is certainly not respectful to others around you and can even be distracting to them.


Respectful and effective fidgeting is intentional fidgeting (sensory-motor stimulation) with an object that doesn’t distract you or the people around you from your main task.  It doesn’t require any active thinking and most importantly it must be situationally appropriate.


Benefits of fidgets

  • Research supports the view that physical activity increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine that is essential to maintain alertness and attention.  Ultimately learners might need less input from fidgets if they get more movement breaks but that is a discussion on its own.
  • Fidgeting can help an individual’s brain to filter out other input from their surroundings or body that might distract them from their primary task. 
  • It can therefore help them to stay better focused on the primary task and can also help to calm the anxious child or adult.
  • Fidgets combine the necessary sensory input with a movement component and therefor assist with self-regulation.
  • Fidgets offer a hands-on experience and are therefore excellent for people that learn through movement.


An effective fidget for the classroom or office must therefore:

  • Be relatively cheap (they tend to misplace it)
  • Be small enough to be handled with one hand
  • Be quiet
  • Not be visually distracting to the child or people around them
  • Be safe


How to introduce fidgets.

  • As Occupational therapist we will look at things like do they have the necessary skills for example muscle strength in their hands to manipulate the fidget, what are their sensory preferences regarding movement and textures, what times of the day do they need it the most et cetera.
  • It is very important in a classroom situation that there must be set rules and boundaries for the use of fidgets (Visit my Facebook page (Christelle Koekemoer Occupational Therapist) for a poster on some important fidget rules).
  • It is natural that other kids might be curious about the fidgets and would also like to experiment with it.  Usually it is a novelty at first but in the end the ones that don’t benefit from it will stop using it.  So create a fidget kit with different fidgets so that they can experiment with it.
  • One type of fidget won’t necessarily be the right fit for everyone. It is important to give them an opportunity to experiment with different fidgets in order to determine the right fit for each individual. 
  • I would usually give a child at least one to two days to experiment with one fidget before I would introduce another fidget.  You would quickly see what fidget works better for a child but can also use a rating scale that the child can mark after each fidget.  For example one of my therapy kids used a marble fidget and the classroom teacher was overjoyed that she could stay focused for longer, the next day we tried a stress ball and she drove the teacher totally crazy with it.  This was clearly not a good fit for the child and also not for the teacher.
  • Children with concentration difficulties tend to get easily bored so it is important that you change the fidgets from time to time.


So let us look at the fidget spinners…



  • The awesome fact about fidget spinners is that it made fidgets much more acceptable to other kids.  This means that kids with concentration or anxiety difficulties can easier use fidgets without being labelled as different.
  • It created a greater awareness of the effect and advantages of fidgets.
  • It give kids an opportunity to use their imagination and think of creative ways to use it and therefor improve their motor planning skills.
  • Kids that use the fidget spinner tend to spend less time with electronics for example tablet games.



  • It can be visually distracting to the individual and also people around them.
  • It tends to be a bit big and a lot of children need two hands to manipulate it.
  • Kids tend to actively think of their next trick where an effective fidget doesn’t require active thinking.
  • One of the important things that I mentioned earlier is that a fidget should be situationally appropriate. A fidget spinner might therefore be effectively used at home or in the car after school but might be disrespectful and ineffective in the classroom situation.   


More situationally appropriate options for the classroom include fidgets like the bicycle fidgets, Thera putty, marble fidget (with one marble, I love two marbles but it tends to make more noise that we would like to limit for the classroom), stretchy string, twisty erasers or fidget footbands (see attached video).


Reading suggestions:

  • Fidget to focus. Outwit your boredom: Sensory strategies for living with ADD. Roland Rotz, Sarah D. Wright.


Please contact me for orders or more information.


Web: www.eastrandoccupationaltherapy.com

FB Page: Christelle Koekemoer Occupational Therapist https://web.facebook.com/eastrandOT/?ref=bookmarks

Email: arbeidsterapeut@gmail.com