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Do Fidget Toys Help You Focus? | Antsy Labs

Do Fidget Toys Help You Focus?

Do fidget toys help you focus?

As the team behind the Fidget Cube™ Kickstarter campaign, we often get asked a number of questions:

  • Do fidget toys help you focus?
  • What’s the best kind of fidget toy for focus?
  • And what even is fidgeting?

Today we want to break down the answers to these questions to give you a better understanding of what fidgeting is, why we fidget it, and how fidget toys can help you focus.

What is fidgeting?

Fidgeting, like any word that you look at for too long, can begin to lose its meaning. 

While fidgeting means to make small movements (sometimes through nervousness or impatience), how you personally fidget might look very different from how someone else fidgets - or what you fidget with. 

Maybe you click pen tops, maybe you tap your feet, maybe you crack your knuckles - there are plenty of ways we fidget.

But why do we fidget?

An article by Meredith Melnick for HuffPost’s Ask Healthy Living shares research about a few potential theories:

  • Sometimes fidgeting is involved in preparing to speak. Given that the same brain areas are involved in both speech and movement, there could be a connection between the two that results in fidgeting before speaking.
  • It could be involved in solving deeper, more complex problems, as suggested by the cognitive load hypothesis. Our brain pushes off some of our excess mental energy to free up room in the brain.

And sometimes, it seems like we fidget just because we can’t not fidget.

Common items used for fidgeting

While we are as close as it comes to being professional fidgeters, we’d wager that most of you can get your fidget on with just about anything.

Two doctors behind a research project about fidgeting have been collecting data on just how we fidget. Their site Fidget Widgets collects some of the different items people use each day to fidget. 

These common fidget tools include:

  • Necklaces
  • Earrings
  • Stuffed animals
  • Silly putty
  • Bracelets
  • Rollers
  • Rings
  • Airpod cases
  • Pens
  • Hands
  • Fidget cubes
  • Pen tops

Of course, humans have fidgeted for as long as they’ve had hands to fidget with. 

As Atlas Obscura illustrates in their article Quit Worrying, Fidget Toys Have Been Around Forever, the pairs of metal Baoding balls (which are rotated around in one hand in a smooth motion) have been around since the Ming Dynasty got its start in the 14th century. 

Greek worry beads, called “komboloi,” date back even further than that, with some being traced back to the monks of Mount Athos some 800 years ago. Misbahas, used by Muslims, or Hindu prayer beads, contemporary worry beads are also used as a sort of fidget object.

While the idea of calling these all fidget objects or fidget toys might be a stretch, they share a common root in the act of self-soothing by manipulating a tactile object. 

Though some have had cultural and religious points that may seem far removed from using our hands to spin pens around in circles while we wait for a meeting, it’s clear we’ve all been fidgeting for a long time.

What science says about fidget toys

From centuries of cultural use comes more recent research. This fidget toy research focuses on fidget spinners, fidget toys and focus, fine motor control development, and stress relief. 

In 2018, Nature published a report on the effect of fidget spinners on fine motor control. In it, some of the key findings show that object manipulation can help with stress in the short term, as well as the improvement of fine motor skills. 

While the findings were not that fidget spinners were the sole reason for that development, it did suggest they could be a more enjoyable way to improve those skills. 

Other studies, including this one in the Journal of Attention Disorders focused on fidget spinner use among young children with ADHD, suggest that fidget spinners may simply be distracting the children, causing more problems in the classroom than they solve.

The research here highlights advantages and disadvantages of fidget toys in different contexts. Ultimately, though,these two findings aren’t mutually exclusive. A fidget spinner can be distracting while also helping to reduce stress. As most of us know anecdotally, one of the most obvious ways to deal with stress is to distract ourselves.

Who among us hasn’t gone for a run after a stressful day at work? The source of stress is work, yet it’s not always the case that more time at work is going to make it go away.

But when we take that distraction too far? Well, it can end up leading to more stress.

How fidget toys can help us deal with stress

Fidget toys serve different purposes. Some are geared towards being an outlet for excess energy, some are geared toward improving focus. Fidget toys can also be beneficial in offloading mental stress.

Stress certainly has a way of consuming us, if we let it. With a fidget toy, you give your body a physical outlet to redirect your attention and mental energy. By distracting yourself, even momentarily, you can enjoy a reprieve from the task at hand.

For those dealing with anxiety, they may be prone to restlessness and fidgeting. Fidget toys, then, become an outlet for channeling that energy into a single place. As Sue Varma, M.D,. tells Forbes Health, the fidget can be seen as an example of a rhythmic sensation, which is “any motion is a form of self soothing—like tapping your feet or shaking your leg.”

How fidget toys can help us focus

Now, beyond stress, can fidget toys help us to focus? Here the science is split among a few ideas.

First, it’s important to recognize that our ideal focus environments are quite different. As mentioned in this article in The Conversation about fidget toys and stress, our optimal levels of stimulation vary. Some people need their own at-home Fortress of Solitude, some thrive in open offices, and others head to crowded coffee shops where they then put on noise-canceling headphones.

We can think about focus in two ways. One would be focusing on the task at hand. When you need to stay focused, a visual object might be too distracting (we’ll get to the toys you can use in just a second). The other is to think about our ability to focus throughout the day. 

Research shows we’re not just a focusing machine, capable of paying close attention to a task for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Heck, for most of us the upper limits on tasks that require a high level of attention might just be 3-4 hours a day

As Medical Xpress shares from a Cognition-published research, taking brief breaks from high-focus activities helps us to stay focused, saying that “prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.”

So, it’s in taking breaks from the intense focus that a visual-based fidget toy could be a welcome reprieve. Like a palate cleansing sorbet between meals, switching our focus to something completely non work-related lets us give our brains a break.

Looking at the Journal of Attention Disorders research again, the findings indicate that “children’s use of fidget spinners was associated with poorer attention across both phases of treatment.” Part of the problem? Fidget spinners are a “colorful and fun object” that can impair one’s ability to stay on task. 

The throughline with the research is that fidget toys that require visual attention - like playing with a fidget spinner - can distract from other tasks in the moment. Ultimately, the way in which a fidget toy can help you to focus (or keep you from focusing) depends on the kind of work you’re doing.

Examples of non-visual fidget toys

There are a number of fidget toys that can serve as a fidgeting solution without requiring constant attention. Here are three that allow for a non-visual fidgeting experience:

  • Putty - Yes, this is the same putty you may have made at science camp back in third grade. It’s also an effective sensory fidget toy. Like a stress ball, PlayDoh or putty allow a tactile manipulation, helping to relieve tension. It can also be manipulated without the need to look at it - and it’s silent - so it allows you to channel a bit of excess energy without requiring the same amount of focus as a more involved fidget toy.

  • Stress balls - Common for physical therapy to help with the effects of arthritis or in strengthening grip, stress balls can also help to calm our nerves, too. The act of squeezing and releasing helps to relax our muscles. Similar to putty, it’s an outlet that we can keep in one hand, out of sight, allowing us to dedicate the majority of our focus to the task at hand.

  • Fidget Cube™ - Though we are pleased with the design of our six-sided Fidget Cube, you don’t actually need to be looking at it to get the satisfaction of playing with it. With a number of tactile functions including twisting, clicking, spinning or flipping (several which can be manipulated without noise), you can keep your hands busy while your mind stays focused. 

Who fidget toys can help

What we as a company have loved about our experience launching Fidget Cube™, developing our own Fidget Spinners, and interacting with a community of passionate fidgeters is seeing how dynamic fidgeting can be.

From being called mindlessness with a purpose to being scientifically shown to help ADHD patients, fidget toys help with a wide range of needs. 

Curious to see some more of our own fidget-y offerings? You can look through all of our Fidget Cube™ and Fidget Spinners here.

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