To many, fidget spinners seem like just another bygone toy fad, a memento of 2017 that spun to a stop. But fidget spinners are more than a fad. They’re one of a class of fidget toys that have legitimate therapeutic applications for children and adults.
“Humans need movement and sensory stimulation. We are made to have input to our bodies,” says Dr. Varleisha Gibbs, the chair and director of Occupational Therapy at Wesley College. “When required to sit for too long, our nervous systems send a message for us to seek out stimulation such as touch, movement, visual, and auditory.”
The need for stimulation is particularly acute among those with stress, anxiety, and certain developmental disorders, Gibbs adds. Fidget toys provide an opportunity to feel interesting textures, apply pressure to objects, and perform repetitive motions, all of which can provide the stimulation minds need to stay focused.
“Students identified with special needs go through a whole process of trying to identify what tools and strategies are going to work best to help them focus,” says Dr. Aubrey Scheopener-Torres, a professor of education at Saint Anselm College.
To find the right fidget toy for yourself or your child, you should expect to go through a similar process of experimentation. As you begin, consider these two important factors.
What kind of stimulation might be best for the person?
A fidget toy that allows for fine motor movements might be best for someone who fidgets mostly with their fingers (i.e. tapping on a desk) while a squeezable toy may work best for someone who habitually clenches his or her fists.
Where is the toy going to be used?
If it’s a setting where others are working, like an office or classroom, then you’ll want to consider the potential for distraction. Many schools banned fidget spinners for this very reason, as teachers became fed up with competing for their students’ attention. Dr. Shannon W. Bellezza, a teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University, says that her patients use different toys in her private practice, where disruption isn’t a concern, than they do in a public setting, where there has to be a balance between the child’s preference and the potential for disruption.
So, with this in mind, which fidget toys should you consider? To help you out, there are the best kinds of fidget toys to buy for kids and adults.
What is it? Fidget cubes have six sides, each with a different interactive element, so users are less likely to get bored with one repetitive motion. Simply turning the cube from side to side in your hand can also be a satisfying motion. Scheopener-Torres says they may be a distraction at first, but after a while the novelty wears off and students can use them in a classroom setting.
We recommend: The Helect H1037 Fidget Cube Toy. It’s durable, only $8, and it has sides that stimulate with both repetitive motions and interesting tactile sensations.
Spiky Sensory Balls
What is it? These balls, which can be made of rubber or plastic, are intended to be held, tossed, and squeezed; the spikes are soft, not prickly. The stimulation comes both from the squeezability of the toy and its unique exterior surface.
We like: The Impresa Products 10-pack of Spiky Sensory Balls. They are latex and BPA-free, so there are no allergy concerns, and they come in a variety of bright colors.
What is it? A smooth stone meant to be rubbed between your fingers. Often there is an indentation where the thumb goes, which makes them difficult to drop and easier to use for long periods of time. Most of the toys on this list have some kind of uneven texture to make them interesting to fidgeters, but worry stones are actually useful because of their smoothness.
We like: Jasper Worry Stones by Raven Blackwood are the right size and shape for the job.
What is it? They may pose a swallowing hazard for young children, but coiled bracelets are great for older kids. According to Gibbs, they’re good for “tactile and slight proprioceptive input; input to the small joints of the hand and arm.”
We like: This 12-pack of Rhode Island Novelty Coiled Bracelets come in a variety of colors and include keyrings, so users can throw it on their key chain.
What is it? A toy that screws on to the top of a pencil, enabling users to flip, screw, or turn them. There are a ton of different pencil topper options that, according to Gibbs, provide both tactile and visual stimulation. These are great for use in the classroom, where your kid should probably have a pencil handy anyways.
We like: This six-pack of fidget toppers from Beacon Ridge that allows fidgeters to turn two different kinds of nuts up and down the topper itself, a repetitive motion that can be quite calming.
What is it? A set of simple metal balls that you rotate in your hands. Gibbs says that these balls, which are a classic Chinese tool, are great for adults. Rotating two of them one hand is a peculiar type of movement that requires mental focus and fine motor control.
We like: These one-pound Top Chi balls have a visually stimulating reflective surface and come with a carrying pouch that protects them and prevents them from hitting together during transport.
What is it? A stick-of-gum-sized mesh pouch in which sits a marble.The outside texture is interesting, and squeezing the marble back and forth within the pouch can be quite satisfying to fidgeters. Bellezza says they work well in a school setting.
We recommend: These nylon Boinks from Endless Possibilities come in a variety of colors and quantities.
Squishies and Sand-filled balloons
What is it?: Squishies are handheld pieces of polyurethane foam, usually made to look like something fun or whimsical. Bellezza recommends them because they offer tactile and pressure stimulation. Squishies keep their shape pretty much no matter what. Sand-filled balloons are also a great option for those who don’t want their fidget toy to have, you know, a face.
We like: This winking cat from Oh So Squishy is pretty cute, and it’s scented, which provides another level of stimulation beyond squeezing.
About the toy: The classic puzzle actually doubles as a solid fidget toy. Think about it: someone playing with a Rubik’s Cube is performing the same movement, turning one of the levels, a bunch of times. Doesn’t that sound like a fidget toy? Bellezza says they are the most popular choice among the clients she sees in private practice.
We recommend: The original, official, classic Rubik’s cube, which comes with a nifty stand.