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Busy Hands to Better Learning

Girl with a fidget spinner. Sensory toys from Raymond Geddes.

Kids seem to have short attention spans these days. The way technology is often used by kids does not help much either. Even adults admit to letting their cell phones and other devices impose upon their lives. Many people, young and old, are conditioning themselves to allow distractions to take over their attention. Finding focus and maintaining it is a difficulty for a great number of people. Since we are human, our attention spans are vulnerable. Not everything we have to do in life easily holds our attention, but if we are to be successful, we must find tactics to keep our train of thought on the right set of tracks.

Commonly, people report losing attention often when they are trying to engage in seated activities like reading or balancing a checkbook. Prolonged seated activities like listening to a lecture challenge all ages. It is normal for an adult to lose focus after twenty minutes of this. Children are even more susceptible to wandering attention. For them, a speaker will be lucky to hold the group’s attention for more than ten minutes. The same challenges are present in classrooms. The consequences of students losing focus can result in a range of problems varying in degree. From inappropriate behavior to failing to meet learning benchmarks, a loss of attention is a huge problem.

For a developing child to hold his or her attention on the task at hand, the brain requires the right level of arousal for it to be focused. When a child is learning how to complete a new task, the focus of one’s attention can generally last thirty minutes. The brain manages all the information with which it is coming into contact. We see how one uses that input by observing the motor and behavioral responses resulting. When these responses are not appropriate, the brain may not have been focusing when the information presented itself. The amount of arousal for the brain may have been lacking.

For one to keep his or her focus in check, coping skills need to be developed. All that some people need is to bounce a foot, twirl a strand of hair, or chew gum and that is enough to arouse the brain into attending the activity at hand. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is a world of other methods to try before giving in to distractions. Sensory toys have become a popular remedy to try with kids who are struggling to hold their attention for educational activities. You may know them as fidgets, small, quiet toys that create enough of a sensation to arouse the user’s brain to the level needed for focus. Be they fidget spinners, putty, slime, squeeze balls, or other kneadable or squishy toys, all can be tried with children who need help when it comes to learning.

Playing with a sensory toy is a type of refocusing activity. Children can be trained to use a sensory toy when they sense they are beginning to lose focus. Sensory toys can calm feelings of stress and relax individuals when they begin to feel anxious. Even when a child senses he or she is becoming bored, the small sensory toy could be the solution to increase that child’s alertness and attention. Just as any developing child may benefit from using a sensory toy as a refocusing activity, so can those on the autism spectrum or those with behavioral, attention, or hyperactive disorders. Sensory toys help kids manage the amount of sensory input with which they come into contact. With their minds ready to focus on listening activities and activities that keep them bound to their seats, their ability to learn can increase.

Sensory toys are readily available in most places where you would find children’s toys and classroom supplies. They are inexpensive, portable, and easily tolerated by those sharing the child’s environment. They come in a variety of shapes and textures. Most are quite durable, too, which is important when your child finds the right kind that helps him or her stay attentive easily. It is key to remember that while one type of sensory toy works for one child, it may not work for another. Through trial and error, you will find that your child’s preferences have an influence on the kind of sensory toy that works for him or her. Teach your children to recognize the triggers that cause distraction. Once they learn to identify why it is hard to keep attention focused, they can learn to use the sensory toy as a coping skill to benefit their learning.

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