Fidget toys: How sensory playthings became a classroom hit

TikTok has sent sales of fidget toys through the roof. But do these sensory toys have any real benefit – and why?

When Pop Its – rubber-like toys that look like colourful bubble wrap – went viral on TikTok earlier this year, it took retailers by surprise.

“I had queues out my door of all these kids,” Wollongong’s Erin Jamieson, who runs The Sensory Studio store, says.

“It was crazy and it literally happened overnight.”

With a video of a monkey called Gaitlyn Rae playing with a Pop It clocking up millions of views alone, it was suddenly game on for retailers such as Erin.

“Originally, we just had mostly kids and adults on the spectrum or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and now it’s very mainstream, so we have all sorts of people coming in to buy fidgets,” she says.

How fidget toys can help kids

Erin set up the store to help her youngest daughter Steph, 10, who is autistic and has ADHD, and others like her.

The fidget toys are part of a special “toolkit” that Steph, who has a habit of picking her skin, uses to keep her hands busy and calm herself.

Other parents buy fidget toys because their kids are picking their nails, pulling their hair out or chewing objects such as shirts, often without realising it.

Erin says if Steph is watching a movie, for instance, a fidget toy (such as a squishy toy or fidget cube) or Theraputty (therapy putty) helps her feel calmer.

How do fidget toys soothe kids?

Child psychologist Deirdre Brandner says she’s long used fidget toys to help clients who experience sensory overload.

“So when children with a diagnosis become overwhelmed, that repetitive behaviour, or that feeling, actually helps them re-centre and will help them focus and concentrate,” Deirdre says.

She says one of the least helpful things for a child with ADHD is to be told they must empty their hands and sit still.

“It’s just the worst thing.

“It’s an itch that you can’t scratch,” she says.

However, Deirdre says there’s no solid research that anyone other than those on the autism spectrum or with ADHD will benefit from fidget toys – apart from just having fun.

Repetitive behaviour can be soothing

Deirdre says when children have autism, they often repeat a behaviour, known as stimming.

“A subtle sort of stimming might be they roll a piece of paper back and forth with their hand repeatedly,” she explains.

“It’s the repetition that’s soothing.

“It’s an action that’s happening over and over again that makes them feel calmer.”

However, what’s needed often differs between children, Deirdre says.

For some kids, it might be rubbing a piece of soft fabric against their face repetitively.

For others, it might be needing to smell something over and over again.

What are the most popular fidget toys?

Aside from the runaway success of Pop Its, Erin says the Simpl Dimpl, which has a plastic outer and two silicone poppers, is very popular.

Then there’s the Marble Mesh Fidget, which is made of nylon mesh and contains a marble that can be moved from end to end in a repetitive movement.

Erin says fidgets are made of everything from plastic and fabric to rubber, wood and metal.

Some may have a sand or goo element inside.

In her store, she encourages parents to get their children to try the toys first, so they can see what helps them best.

The normalising of fidget toys

Erin says one distinct advantage of fidget toys becoming mainstream is that children with special needs don’t feel the need to hide them.

Her daughter, for example, has a sensory toolkit she keeps in the classroom.

“At first she was a little bit embarrassed by it, but now she’s covered her little box in stickers and she’s actually written ‘My sensory kit’ on it,” she says.

“Some kids that are on the spectrum kind of go, ‘I don’t feel so different anymore, because other kids are using these things’.”

Written by Larissa Ham.