We can bet on one thing: at one point in your childhood, you might have gotten the signature pinch twist from your mother and been told to sit still and stop fidgeting. Whether in a church pew, in a waiting room, or while visiting relatives, the art of fidgeting seemed to be a universal gift for most children. And in the past, it has been frowned upon, mainly by mothers.
So what has changed that we now see fidgeting as an industry? And as an industry that is growing and evolving into a niche market? Fidget toys aren’t just for kids; they are being marketed to children, adolescents and adults, alike. What is the appeal? Fidget toys are appealing because:
- They regulate attention
- Help destress
- Create movement for stimulating the brain stem
- Provide a mindless mental occupation
Ever had a seat at the conference table next to a drummer? You know, the guy who has his pen or pencil held lackadaisically in his hand and is flipping his fingers to make a “tick, tick, tick ” noise on the table? How about the thumper? The leg just starts moving up and down like there’s a rabbit in the shoe and soon the whole table is moving. What is that?
The average attention span of an adult is 15 minutes. You can sit still and listen for 15 minutes unless there is something visual or kinesthetic happening, and even then, it doesn’t guarantee focus. But research finds that if you put something in the hands of the person listening, something that doesn’t require attention but can be a “mindless” movement, repetitive and satisfying, that attention span will increase by about 20 percent.
Pressure points, particularly in the hands and fingers, can help soothe and regulate pulse and heart rate, both biometrics that can affect the ability to pay attention. Pressure, movement or texture on these points repeatedly occupy the part of the brain seeking stimulation outside of the audio and visual stimulant.
Turns out that twisting the hair is not just flirtatious. It is a form of self-contact, and self-contact is a form of destressing. It is rooted in the practice of reflexology to some degree. The idea is that certain parts of the feet or hands contain nerve endings that correlate to certain parts of the body and that rubbing or applying pressure to them, it can stop pain, strain, or tension in that area.
Self-contact is a natural reflex. Think about a baby who sucks their thumb. It is instinctual, as is the sucking motion itself. Fidget toys work in the same way. But they replace the self-contact instinct with something more discreet.
Stimulating the Brain Stem
The brainstem is a hotbed of involuntary activity in the human body. These are the physical functions that we don’t think about: breathing, heart rate, and even consciousness. Sometimes, the brain can wait up, but then, for one reason or another, cannot remain alert. Sometimes, the brain needs help achieving alertness.
The easiest way to trigger the brain stem into an alert state is movement. Think about a child sitting in class or an adult sitting in a meeting and their brain stem is just slowly shriveling from inactivity. A fidget toy will trigger that portion of the brain to move. Movement is a fundamental way to trigger the brain stem, and fidget toys can serve that purpose.
Mindless Mental Occupation
Are you a clicker? When you work or sit in a meeting or in a class or seminar, are you constantly clicking your ballpoint pen or mechanical pencil? Ever wonder why you do that? Because your hands and body crave movement that won’t pull attention away from what is happening in front of you.
Fidget toys, both for adults and children, allow that freedom. It is not something that has to be paid attention to, leaving audio and visual channels free for processing information. It also works as a tactile soother and stimulant that boosts concentration.
Fidget toys are trendy, but they also serve a purpose, an important one to people with short attention spans or who crave tactile stimulation. Their popularity is primarily due to their function and how well that function serves those who seek them out.