Get to Know Sensory and Stim Toys
We’ve all heard it: Fidget and sensory toys are the newest craze! They’re a tool for helping with anxiety; they’re causing distractions in classrooms; they help people focus. It seems like nobody can agree on what a fidget or sensory toy really is. Well, we’re going to break this down into its parts and see if we can help you get a clearer picture of what exactly IS a sensory toy?
At its core, a sensory toy is something that engages one or more of the five senses--smell, touch, taste, hearing, and sight. Oftentimes these are used by people who are neurodivergent (those who are neurologically different in function or structure of the mind) to help focus and relax, but can be used by anyone for these same reasons, or just because they’re satisfying.
Let’s have a look at some of the different styles and types of sensory toys. We’ll offer here a few examples that demonstrate the features to take into consideration when discussing sensory toys: fidgetability, soothingness, loudness, visual stimulation, and chewability. That last one might throw you for a loop, so hang on tight.
One of the first fidget toys to explode in popularity was the fidget spinner. They were everywhere. Kids couldn’t get enough, and neither could a lot of adults. They’re satisfying to hold and watch, but more importantly they give you something to occupy your hand. Feeling the weight of it moving between fingers and sending it spinning can be just what the antsy person in your life needs. However, you may recall hearing about them being banned in schools because they were causing distractions among students. This is an example of the wrong fidget at the wrong time, or in the wrong hands. What is one child’s focus tool can easily be another’s distraction. Fidget spinners should not be discounted because they aren’t allowed in classrooms–used the right way, they can still be an excellent stress-relieving stim.
Plenty of people remember leaving a pencil in a disastrous state, whether it was just one or two during a stressful time, or if you were a chewing fiend and couldn’t get enough, a steady stream of pulp-like former pencils. I left most of my pencils looking like swiss cheese because of classroom anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. If that sounds familiar, then perhaps you may need to consider a chewing necklace. Chewing can be a great oral stimulant, so silicone teething toys are becoming more and more popular. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and allow people who chew when anxious a safer alternative than pencils, nails, hair, pens, or whatever is in chewing range. These come in various forms, like pencil toppers, teether toys, and silicone chewing necklaces. They are usually good for school (excluding Covid regulations and flu season), because they are quiet, and very specialized for the chewer in your life.
Now, let’s talk about slimes and putties. They’re not just fun and silly objects, but actually popular stimming tools. They can be twisted, stretched, squeezed, folded, and more. They can have scents added to them to make them calming or engaging, and have all sorts of things put in to add textures and colors. When folded and stretched they can cause a crackling sound, which many find satisfying and relaxing. There is one downside, however, which is that they can be messy! Slime especially can make an absolute mess and stain fabrics and tables. Putties are a safer alternative, as they’re more firm and often come in easy to carry tins to keep them neat and tidy. Even these, if left in a pocket or on a couch, can lead to disaster. If the person using the putty is responsible enough, you can have one of the best sensory experiences with the putty of your choice. Small tins and containers can make them easily portable, and being a mostly silent toy, they can be great for a classroom. The color and add-in options can make this an excellent visual-stim toy as well.
Speaking of visual-stim toys, there are some great options. You wouldn’t know it, but you might have one or two in your house right now. I’m talking about snow globes, those little water shakers where you watch the glitter flecks slowly settle along the bottom. In essence, things used for visual stimulation are often calming images that relax the mind and senses. Hourglasses, lava lamps, falling sand pattern toys, and even colored polymer balls in a water bottle can offer relief in an intensely bright and visually overwhelming world. Soft lights, gentle motion, and calming colors can help children with nighttime anxieties fall asleep, or zone in their focus after being overwhelmed by a long day at school. These often pair well with gentle sounds.
Sound can be an excellent tool for reining in the senses. While a fidget that makes noise may not be suitable for school or a crowded movie theater, it’s great for allowing relief to the ears. White noise machines are one of the most popular options, but small fidgets that make noise are quickly growing in popularity. Pop Toobs and plastic segmented slugs are being recognized more and more for engaging multiple senses rather effectively and also generally being fun. I think the most effective fidgets are the ones that spark joy.
Lastly, we need to talk about weighted tools. Weighted plush animals and blankets have been incredibly effective at grounding. The deep pressure engages the sense of touch in a way that causes the body to relax. Weighted items come in many sizes and variations, including weighted blankets, lap and shoulder pads, vests, and stuffed animals. This can engage a very satisfying full body relaxation, letting the other senses rein themselves in. One should always consult recommendations from manufacturers or health professionals for the right weight for these items, as things that are too heavy can cause joint issues or leave someone feeling trapped instead of relaxed.
As we discover more about child development, mental health, and neurodivergence, the tools we use will change and grow. I hope that this article has helped catch you up, and maybe showed you your new favorite sensory stim toy!
Ross Grenier, former pencil chewer