Friend or Foe? Fidget Toys in the Classroom

Fidget Toys: the very thought can make teachers (and parents) groan and roll their eyes. From stress balls to fidget spinners, there always seems to be some new gadget taking over your classroom. Should they be banned? Should they be embraced? The debate has been ongoing ever since stress balls first gained popularity in the 1980s. The practice of using sensory tools, however, has been around for much longer. Baoding balls originated during the Ming dynasty and were used to reduce stress, improve brain function, and aid in dexterity development. Before weighted blankets, there were Turkish yorgans which date back to the 16th century. The average winter yorgan weighed anywhere from nine to thirteen pounds. Komboloi, or “worry beads”, were used in Ancient Greece to promote relaxation.

While these sensory tools might have been around for centuries, the science behind them has only recently been looked into. Dr. Anna Jean Ayres first identified Sensory Integration in the 1960’s when she noticed there were children who struggled with functional tasks who didn’t fit into the specific categories of disability that were used at the time. She developed the term “Sensory Integrative Dysfunction” to describe the problems faced by children whose brains struggle to receive, process, or respond to sensory input. Sensory input instructs us on how to respond to our environment and there are consequences from being over or under-stimulated, especially for children who are still learning how to process these cues. When confronted with bright lights, messy or cluttered spaces, and loud noises, children can become agitated and retreat to quieter spaces; whether that is physically finding relief in a less stimulating area or by shutting off their sensory receptors and essentially shutting down. When stimulation is restricted, as is common in a traditional classroom, children will find their own ways to meet their sensory needs. Teachers know exactly what this looks like: tapping, bouncing up and down, kicking, touching everything and everyone, chewing on pencils, making noises, or getting out of their seat to go on some made-up “but I really needed to throw this away” mission.

This is exactly where fidget toys come in handy. (Ha! I didn’t even realize that was a pun until revising this post). And I’m not talking about fidget spinners in all their noisy, distracting glory.

It might be counter-intuitive to think that doing two things at once can enhance a student’s ability to focus on their lessons but evidence is slowly backing it up. One study demonstrated how increased movement boosted the cognitive performance of children with ADHD. Another found that students who used stress balls had improved focus, attitude, social interactions, and even writing abilities. The trick with fidget toys is finding those that don’t require so much brain power that they pull focus from the main task. How many of you have your own fidget methods that you revert to without realizing? Do you chew on pencils or repeatedly click your pen? Perhaps you doodle or bounce your leg. We all have different ideas of what an optimal “focus zone” looks like and it’s important to help students discover their own learning styles and preferences. It’s important for adults too–I decided to invest in my own fidget toys a few months ago and I always keep one at my desk. 

Looking out over your sea of pupils, it can be a little overwhelming to try and figure out their individual needs but as I always say, “When in doubt, ask it out!” As you go into a new school year, reach out to the parents and ask what has helped their child calm down in the past. Do they have a history of thumb-sucking? They would probably respond well to chewelry or rubber pencil toppers. Having a quiet space in your classroom or noise-canceling headphones would be good options for children who need time alone in their room to defuse. Some students need physical contact in order to stay grounded so pressure vests or weighted lap pads would benefit them the most. 

Another great way to learn your students’ individual learning styles is to involve them! Have them complete a task while adjusting the volume of background noise and have a discussion about which one was easiest for them to work with. Give them fidget toys to use while reading to them or showing them a video and then ask them if they were able to focus better or if it was a distraction. This also helps your students develop self-regulation skills. Giving your students access to different sensory tools allows them to stop seeing them as toys and start to recognize when they really need them.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, there are lots of people who would agree with you. Fortunately there are also lots of tips and tricks out there to help you integrate fidget toys into your classroom. Here are some of the most common ones that I encountered in my research:

  1. BOUNDARIES. Work with your students to come up with rules for the fidget toys that they are willing to follow. Post the rules somewhere in your classroom as a visual reminder.
  2. Have a variety of tools available to the class. This can prevent jealousy among students and allows you to use discretion in deciding what toys are actually beneficial. 
  3. Find toys that don’t produce noise or require sight to use. The kids should be able to use their hands or feet to fidget while using their eyes and ears to learn.
  4. Be patient! Once your students get used to the sensory tools in the classroom, the novelty will wear off and they’ll be less of a distraction.
  5. Remind your students that “fair” isn’t the same thing as “equal”. Different people have different needs and it’s important to support those needs.

Ultimately the choice to integrate sensory tools into your classroom is up to you! The fad fidget toys will come and go, but there are plenty of tried and true options that can really work wonders when properly used.

Are fidget toys a menace to society or a misunderstood ally? What challenges or successes have you seen come from them?

Do You Also Hyper-Focus On Your Child’s Ability To Retain Rote Memorization?

The pressure of learning in early childhood is real and unnecessary. I’ve written articles on this exact topic and I’ve done my own research on it as well! But still… it’s real. It’s there. The ideology that children should be able to name colors, shapes, numbers, letters and more all before Kindergarten seems wild and academic-minded instead of development-minded. However, even I have fallen into the trap of this thought process!

We were wrestling with the decision of sending my daughter to Kindergarten the year she met the cut-off or holding her back one year. The idea of sending her the year-earlier came up and my first questions were,

Does she know all of her letters though?
I know for a fact that she doesn’t know all of their sounds yet.
She’s pretty good at the numbers 1-10, but what about 11+?
How is she supposed to be reading if she doesn’t know her letter sounds?

I quickly fell into the trap of “kindergarten readiness” and thought that my daughter wasn’t going to be ready in time because she didn’t know enough yet. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s currently November 2021 and she won’t even start kinder until September 2022!!

Once I took a deep breath and realized what I was doing, I pulled up an old post that Mary write about kindergarten prep and a list of what you truly should be focused on when deciding if a child is ready for school or not:

  • Feel capable and confident, and tackle new demands with an “I can do it” attitude.
    Check.
  • Have an open, curious attitude toward new experiences
    Absolutley she does.
  • Enjoy being with other children.
    YES. It fuels her extroverted soul.
  • Can establish a trusting relationship with adults other than parents.
    Check. Again, I’ve got an extrovert on my hands.
  • Can engage in physical activity such as walk, run, climb (children with handicaps can have a fine time in kindergarten if school and parents work cooperatively on necessary special arrangements).
    All day every day.
  • Take care of their own basic needs, such as dressing, eating, and toileting.
    The most independent soul I know.
  • Have had experience with small toys, such as puzzles and crayons.
    Yes.
  • Express themselves clearly in conversation.
    Yes, well enough for a 4 year old.
  • Understand that symbols (such as a stop sign) are used to provide useful information.
    Check.
  • Love books, stories and songs and can sit still to listen.
    Oh, yes.

So when you also inevitably find yourself getting caught up with your child’s knowledge on rote memorization (yes, that’s all learning letters, shapes, etc is.), take a deep breath. Realize that it’s normal to have this thought process, but there is more to it. And then come back to this list and remember the important things that your child really needs to know when they go to school.

How To Choose A Good Preschool

How to choose a good preschool

I feel bad writing this post right now because the time to choose a preschool is more in the late winter/ spring since that’s when registration typically falls. However, it’s been a subject on my mind as my daughter attends her second year of preschool and I talk with friends and neighbors about the preschools they’ve chosen for their kids. It made me realize that not all preschools are created equal and there should be a good thought process/ questioning stage before sending our kids off to them. 

First and foremost- preschool is not required. It’s not something you have to sign your child up for, especially because it can be a HUGE financial responsibility when you factor in monthly tuition for 8-9 months for one child, let alone multiple children over multiple years. There are a lot of preschool curriculums you can purchase to use at home if you’re willing. Our favorite is Playing Preschool by Suzy from Busy Toddler.  But there is also NO shame in not doing a full-on preschool curriculum at home with your child either!

If you’re looking for an in-person preschool, here are a few tips and questions you can look into before choosing the correct one for your family: 

Ask about the curriculum and look for keywords like “play” and “social interaction”. It shouldn’t just focus on letters, numbers, shapes, and strict learning. If you have to ask about playtime, that’s a red flag! Almost every preschool will have playtime built into the day, but if it’s not something they bring up without prompting, it’s not their sole focus. 

Here are multiple posts on why preschool is not just letters and numbers: 

There’s More to Preschool Than Letters and Numbers

An entire page on multiple early childhood resources focusing on play, preschool, and independent kids. 

Can you tell our previous writer, Mary, and I are incredibly passionate about this subject?! 

Another tip: tour the preschool if possible! Look at the setup, are art supplies, backpack hooks, toys, and other supplies at a child’s level? This promotes independence and gives children access to a world that often shuts them out. 

Does the space feel safe and somewhere learning can happen? Is it open and ready for play? 

Is the preschool within a reasonable distance from your home, or is there a bus/carpool system? 

Questions to ask: 

Is homework ever required? (Unless the homework is to play, paint, enjoy childhood, or only if the child wants to do it, the answer to this question should always be NO.)

How much is monthly tuition and are there any other fees on top of that? (You need to make sure it’s affordable and sustainable for your family!) 

What school supplies is my child required to have? (Again, affordable and sustainable for your family.) 

What is your goal for the children throughout the school year? (If they say something along the lines of “have them reading before kinder”, please RUN far away and do not incline your 4-5-year-old to the pressures of reading before kinder.) 

What are some daily activities they will be participating in? (Painting, play-dough, pretend play, singing, reading, and other fun activities along those lines are the answers you’ll want to hear.) 

Importance Of Reading 20 Minutes A Day

supporting teachers

Many, many schools push 20 minutes of reading a day. And while using reading charts or similar methods may not be beneficial in the long run, sitting down to read for 20 minutes a day is. Especially if it’s done in an authentic way. Here are some statistics of reading 20 minutes a day: 

Children who read 20 minutes a day are exposed to 1.8 million words in one school year.

They are also more likely to score in the 90th percentile on standardized testing. 

There was also a study done on children reading 15 minutes a day that showed academic achievement and gains in regards to reading, but not as high as the students that read 20 minutes a day. 

Students reading 5 minutes or less a day were more likely to fall behind their peers academically and needed intervention methods to bring them to grade level (statistics from kidskonnect.com).

Beyond just statistics and test scores, what are the other benefits of reading? 

A widened imagination and higher levels of creativity. 

Reading can help foster empathy. 

It exposes children to multiple cultures, ideas, and worlds. 

Reading improves writing skills. 

It expands vocabulary. 

Taking 20 minutes to read every day can boost mental health. 

Improves critical-thinking skills. 

Can encourage them to ask more questions when they don’t understand concepts in the book, such as why some cultures eat, drink, or act in the ways they do. 

Have I convinced you yet?! Encouraging 20 minutes of reading a day can do wonders for children’s education. There are amazing benefits to it! Stay tuned for a blog post in the future on how you can foster a love of reading in your students as well. 

Late Summer Birthdays: Hold Back Or Send To Kindergarten?

Even though my daughter is only 3.5 years old, I’ve been having a debate in my mind lately about kindergarten. Her birthday is late in July, so I’ve come to the tough decision that most parents of late summer birthday kids face. Send them to school when you’re supposed to so they are younger for their grade? Or hold them back a year from school and they are the oldest for their grade? 

I’ve been wrestling with a decision for quite some time now, listing out pros and cons. Sending your kids to school earlier when they will be younger for the age means they are out of the house earlier and accustomed to school sooner. Sending them later so they are older means they have more time to be a kid and don’t have the pressures of going to school placed on them so fast. 

The pros and cons lists are endless, I’ve been making them for about a year now! And beyond that, it’s so situational depending on each child individually, and their external circumstances. It is nearly impossible to know what the best situation is without doing an entire scientific experiment and analyzing both situations. But that is impossible to do! 

Here is where I am finding comfort- Kids thrive in whatever situation they are placed in. 

Sure, each child will have their struggles in school. Some may fall behind because they are younger for their grade and cannot keep up academically. Others may stick out and get made fun of because they are taller or bigger for their grade. 

Regardless, they will have successes too. They will find happiness and thriving whether you place them in kindergarten this year, or the next. 

We have yet to choose if my daughter will be attending kindergarten in 2022 or 2023, but once we do, you bet you guys will hear about our decision and the entire thought process that will go into it! 

Is this a decision weighing on you right now too? Which way are you leaning? 

Early Childhood Activity Supply List

Probably my most requested blog post, finally put together for you! A grand list of my early ed activities must-have items. Nothing on this list to too special and majority of the items you will probably find around your house already! To see more tips on early childhood activities, visit this page here. This list is a good starting point if you want to be in a position to be able to just grab and go for activities. Nothing on this list is sponsored or endorsed, just a list from one Early Childhood Educator to another. 


Paper/Sticker Supplies

Construction paper

Colored paper

Cardstock

Dot stickers


Paint Supplies

Washable tempera paint

Washable watercolor paint

Rags for cleaning

Paintbrushes- I like the chunkier, bigger kind. Not just the small ones that come with kid’s watercolor kits. 


Office Supplies

Crayons

Markers

Permanent Markers- For you, not the kids! 

Kid scissors 

Pipe Cleaners

Glue

Glue sticks

Painters tape

Sticky notes


Sensory Bin Supplies 

Large storage bin- roughly 28 qt

Small storage bin- roughly 6 qt

Sensory bin fillers: A lot of these are materials I have around my house or material I buy for a specific sensory bin I have in mind. I do not keep all of these materials on hand at all times. 

Funnels

Small people or animals for pretend play

Bowls

Spoons

Ice cube trays

Muffin tin

Pompoms 


Misc

Toothpicks 

Popsicle Sticks 

Food coloring 

Dollar store or IKEA scrub brushes

Shoelaces 

Colored beads

Squirt bottle


With this list of supplies that I have on hand, I can pull out an activity usually within a moments notice and only takes about a minute or two for me to set them up, I’m all about the easy, simple activities! If there is something specific I want to do with my kids I will make a trip to the store for those items. 

Are there any other must-have items you keep on hand? 

Indoor Winter Activities: Specifically Gross Motor

This winter has proven to be particularly hard for parents everywhere while we are trying to entertain our kids during these cold months without the aid of indoor playgrounds/ activities that we’ve had in the past. Being stuck inside all day can be so hard to get those gross motor skills working! 

While I am a big supporter of outdoor play in the winter, there is still a need for good, safe, gross motor play in the home. Here are a few of the ideas that have kept us sane. 

Indoor obstacle course: I just add painters tape X’s on the ground for my kids to jump on, our kitchen bench to crawl over or under. Utilize your stairs in the obstacle course if you can! Tape papers on the walls for them to high five, stools to jump off of, and more! 

Grab some plastic cups: set up either like bowling bins OR in a pyramid and roll a ball at them. Watch the “crash!” and set them up again! Don’t worry about having to set it up over and over again, that’s a great job for your kiddos to get in on. 

Practice some tumbling: Show them how to do somersaults, cartwheels, handstands, and more. There are videos on YouTube for kids to practice as well! 

Dance party: Get up and moving with a dance party! Throw on your favorite music and get everyone moving.

Wastebasket Basketball: Crumple up some paper and shoot it into the garbage or recycling bin. You could also challenge them to search around for pieces of trash around the house to toss in. Cleaner house, fun activity, everyone wins! 

Sticky note find: this is one that is hard to describe without a picture, so I had to borrow this one from Busy Toddler’s website. Hide the sticky notes around the house and have them run around finding the sticky notes and running back to organize it where it goes! We’ve done this with colors, shapes, numbers, letters, or even just pictures! 

Treasure Hunt: Grab a clipboard and a piece of paper and draw pictures of objects around the house for your littles to find. Once they find them, they can color it in, put a checkmark over it, or if accessible, have them take a camera or phone around taking pictures of their findings! 

Paint in the bathtub: painting is typically a fine motor skill. But once it’s moved to the tub, it can become a gross motor skill! When the shower walls become your canvas, movement is inevitable, they’ll be using their arms to paint, not just their hands. Also the biggest bonus: easy cleanup! You can buy specifically bathtub paints, or I’ve found that regular washable paint does fairly well too. Use your best judgment. 

Painters tape road: lay down some painter’s tape for “roads” throughout your home for your kiddos to drive cards on them. The biggest success with this is- make them go throughout your home. This is how you’ll get them moving! Keeping the tape in one congregated area of the playroom will keep the kids there too. Have the roads weave through the bedrooms and hallways, getting them to move their cars all over! You can extend this activity by setting up houses out of blocks and creating a whole city throughout the entire house! 

To see more posts on play and early childhood ages, check out this page