Should we tell our children to stop fidgeting and concentrate?

Whether it’s a tangle, a spinner or a cube, chances are you’ve seen a fidget toy in use. Lauded as aids to concentration, such devices are now an everyday sight in the classroom. But what is the science behind them? How and why do fidget toys help students to focus, to remain calm and to learn?

With a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist amongst its contributors, ‘Fidget on Four’, a BBC Sounds podcast presented by Dr Kat Arney, explores these and other questions connected to the phenomenon of fidgeting. 

Fidgeting is explained as a rhythmic and repetitive movement. The podcast highlights it as the body’s way of self-regulating, of stimulating the mind to aid concentration, something which is of particular use, though not limited, to those diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, whether it takes the form of hair twirling or leg jigging, we all fidget at times and the benefits for self-comfort and stress reduction are evident.

Rhythmic activity facilitates focus and, against many of our natural instincts, telling a student to stay still and concentrate could be counterproductive. For some students, movement could activate the brain ‘machinery’ they need to learn. As Dr Arney puts it, for them, to think is to move.

However, the podcast also warns that the fidgeting action itself (be it doodling or using a device) can sometimes become more interesting than the topic someone is aiming to focus on. Spinners, for example, can become more of a plaything and less of a ‘tool’ and if someone’s doodling is taking on the shape of a great masterpiece, the doodler’s mind has quite possibly drifted off elsewhere.

The podcast covers a fascinating range of ideas, from fidgeting in mice being linked to their decision making, to knitting as a form of fidgeting that can help people with their mental health. You may have neither mice nor knitting in your classroom, but it certainly places an importance on fidgeting that some of us may have never considered. 

‘Fidget on Four’ may even have you thinking again the next time you ask a student to cease that incessant rhythmic clicking of their pen. 

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BBC Sounds: Fidget on Four