Stop touching things! The role of fidget toys

Parents have you seen your child waiting in a room, sitting at a dinner table or riding in the back of the car touching things, grabbing something or just wanting things in their hands? Teachers, have you had a child reach out and grab things, pick up small items and play with them, seek out other children’s laces?

fidget

You may have had these experiences and wondered why are they doing this? Why must they have something in their hands?! You may be familiar with some of the concepts and terms of sensory integration, such as sensory processing, modulation and regulation. If not, check out our previous blog on Sensory Integration basics, to better understand what we are talking about.

In many of the above situations, children are ‘seeking’ extra sensory input they may otherwise not be receiving from their environment. Some refer to this as a ‘high threshold’ to neurological input, and as such, the more input they get, the more alert an organised their minds can be. The concept of fidget toys is based on this, where children are seeking things to touch and feel, to provide the ‘just right’ amount of sensory input, to calm their nervous system. Fidget toys are often used to provide sensory input in a less distracting way. They can help improve concentration and attention to tasks by allowing the brain to filter out the extra sensory information (e.g. listening to a lesson in the classroom, paying attention to a book during circle time). By having a fidget toy, a child may be able to better ‘filter out’ excess sensory information in their surroundings and their own body, which is causing distraction, and encouraging this sensory information to be focused on a toy in the hands.

Through targeting the tactile system, the hands can be very good regulators for attention and modulation in an environment. The homunculus (pictured below) is a visual representation of the anatomical divisions of the primary motor cortex (part of the brain responsible for processing and integrating motor information) and the primary somatosensory cortex (part of the brain responsible for the processing and integrating tactile – touch – information). This is most important when referring to fidget toys and tactile information. 

Sensory_Homunculus

If we look at the body’s homunculus, we can see that a large section of the picture contains the hands (including all the fingers and the thumb). You may also see that the mouth has a large representation. This again shows how effective the mouth can be in supporting regulation, which has already been noted in a previous OTFC post Chewing Through the Facts. From a Sensory perspective, given how dominant the hand representation is to the body, it make sense that the hands, with lots of neurological and sensory input, can be effective regulators of the body’s nervous system.

 

What makes a good fidget toy?

It is important they are relatively cheap (or more expensive ones – durable), safe, small enough, particularly for the classroom: not noisy or produce noise to distract, and able to be used without distracting others too much.

It is also important to factor in some of these questions when choosing a toy:

– What are their foundation skills like (do they have the hand strength or motor skills for a specific toy?)

– Do they have sensory preferences? Are there textures, shapes, sensations they will avoid? (remember to try and provide toys that will be sought and will provide a calming influence)

– What times during the day do they seem most fidgety? And when would they most benefit from having a toy?

– How long will they use the toy for? What are the rules around it?

So, we know WHY and HOW fidget toys can be effective, so let’s mention a few. Some can be bought specifically as fidget toys, and some are everyday things that can be extremely effective in maintaining regulation at home and in a classroom. Many of these can be combined, stored in a ‘fidget box’ and given to a child to chose from, each time they feel the need for a fidget toy.

Tangles-300x300

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Tangles

Koosh-Ball

 

 

 

 

 

– Koosh Balls

– Putty

– Blu tack

– Paperclips

– Stress Balls

– Corks

– Velcro under a desk

– A hand sized smooth Stone

 

Hoberman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

– Homberman Sphere

These are just some examples, but there are many more! If you have any effective fidget toys, please feel free to comment, and we may post it on the blog!

For those wanting fidget toys and some places to access and further ideas, the below links have a great range of specific fidget toys:

Special Needs toys

Sensory Tools

Refreshing Memories 

Windmill Toys (252 The Parade, Norwood)

In addition, your local $2 shop or bargain shop will often sell some great fidget toys at a low cost!

Happy fidgeting!

Sensory Integration: Back to Basics

Whist all of our wonderful therapists here at OTFC are skilled and experienced in many different areas, we all hold Sensory Integration as the main theory that guides our practice.

So what is ‘Sensory Integration theory’ and what has that got to do with your therapist spending time pushing your child around on a swing?!

In the 1960’s a wonderful OT by the name of A. Jean Ayres began formulating a theory that in order to move and learn, our bodies rely on the ability of our nervous systems to process sensory information correctly.  Put formally, Sensory Integration is ‘the neurological process that organises sensation from one’s own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment’.

We are constantly receiving sensory information from within our bodies and our surrounding environment. We receive sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and feedback from our body about movement, balance and our position in space. These senses all work together, to help us get a sense of who we are, where we are and what is happening around us – hence the term INTEGRATION. Our nervous system must be able to register and receive the information, classify it correctly (e.g. Tactile sensation coming from fingertips touching a pan), store it in our memory (in order to be able to recognise it if it comes again), adapt the information to the current situation (e.g. The pan feels hot now) and respond appropriately (e.g. Remove the hand).

We need to be able to PROCESS sensory information efficiently in order to move, learn and interact with others appropriately. For some people, sensory integration occurs without even having to think about it. The nervous system also has a very important job in MODULATING sensory input coming into the nervous system. In this way the nervous system acts as a “FILTER” – switching off sensations that we don’t need and helping us to become aware of sensations that we need. This influences our ‘arousal’ level and helps us to speed up our “Engine” when we need to run, react quickly and play sport and also helps us to slow our “Engine” when we need to sit and listen in class or get off to sleep at night. Most children can sit in the classroom and listen to their teacher giving instructions without paying attention to the hum of the air conditioner, or the hanging artwork swaying in the breeze, or the feel of the hard chair under their bottom…etc. Furthermore, some of those children could even continue colouring in whilst listening to the teachers instructions. However, for children with sensory integration dysfunction (also called Sensory Processing Disorder), their nervous systems may not be able to process sensory information efficiently. They may misinterpret sensory information, causing them to over-react (like the child who can’t stand to be touched or bumped by others) or under-react (like the daydreamer child who takes a lifetime to get ready for school in the morning). Children may therefore avoid distressing or confusing sensations, or seek out more sensations in order to learn more about it. Children who over-react to certain stimuli may constantly be ‘on edge’ all day, whilst other children may be working twice as hard to consciously process sensory information that would normally happen automatically, or subconsciously for others; what an exhausting experience this must be for them!

So getting back to how this relates to the use of swings in Sensory Integration therapy… Aside from touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, we have two very important senses: vestibular and proprioceptive. Vestibular sense arises from the vestibular apparatus inside the inner ear and put simply, is the sense of movement and balance. Proprioception is our sense of body awareness – our brain receives feedback from our joints, muscles and tendons to help us understand where our body parts are in relation to each other. Vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile senses are the very first senses to develop in utero, they are our biggest sensory systems, and they provide the foundations for a child’s development. Therefore, it is no wonder that OT sessions often target the vestibular system (through things like swinging), proprioceptive system (through things like rough and tumble, jumping and crashing) and tactile system (Shaving cream!!).

During the fun activities in an OT session, children are constantly receiving all types of sensory input and their nervous system is being challenged to receive, classify, store, adapt and respond to this information; it is trying to process and integrate the sensory information so that the child can move efficiently, learn and be happy!

All of this information is just the tip of the iceberg!! To learn more about Sensory Integration and how it will help your child’s development, come along to one of our parent information evenings. For further details, you can contact us at Occupational Therapy For Children on (08)8410 4522.