Using Toys for Childlike Learning

Today I’ve got my Corporate Trainer hat- if you do too, I want to know:
Do you use toys in your classroom session?
I’ve been bringing what I call Fiddle Toys to my classroom learning sessions for nearly 20 years and they’re always a hit. I find that giving learners something active to do with their hands not only helps them stay mentally focused, but it also is a help to those who are kinesthetic learners (meaning they learn by moving their bodies.) Even grumpy, non-engaged participants will eventually loosen up a bit and find a reason to touch one of the items placed in the center of their table.
Because toys do wear out, I’ve been looking at refreshing my stash. That’s prompted a reflection on my criteria for appropriate Fiddle Toys.
My fiddle toys must be:

Durable

Quiet

Safe-can’t pinch people or somehow “rub off” on them with ink

Something that doesn’t invite too much “play”/interaction with another person

Also, a common toy that I’ve seen used is something “filled”-squishy items filled with gel, liquid or sand. I’ve tried them all and have given up. Believe it or not, I’ve seen all three types destroyed by someone with just a tad too tight a grip. You can imagine the mess. At that point, the toy creates more distraction than focus.
The biggest hits over the years of “typical” toys have been:

Mini-Etch-A-Sketch

Silly Putty

Rubick’s Cube

Slinkys

Pipe cleaners

I’ve had also great success going to my local novelty shop. The prices are so much cheaper than any other retail outlet. As a bonus, a trip to the novelty store is an instant stress-reducer. A few other tips:

Aim for 2-3 extra toys per grouping of six people. Nobody likes to feel like they got the “last toy of the bunch”.

Pay attention to the most popular toy and be sure there’s one at every table. I’ve even heard people negotiating for different toys during breaks.

Make the toys part of an ice-breaker. Put the same toys with varying colors (say, “stretchy guys”) on the table. Ask everyone to take a toy and create new discussion groups according to the color of the toy they selected.

So, if you’re looking to increase your classroom participants’ focus and participation, try tossing a few toys in to the mix and see what happens. Encouraging people to be childlike (curious, experimental) with the toys make indeed decrease their tendency to be childish (immature, uncooperative).

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