Using Toys for Childlike Learning

by Jennifer Miller on September 3, 2010

in Training Delivery

Jen's Favorite Training Toys

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. 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:


-Silly Putty

-Rubick’s Cube


-Pipe cleaners

I’ve had also great success going to my local novelty shop, Kent Novelty. 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. I took a picture of what’s in my Toy Bag (you knew I’d have one, didn’t you?) My favorites are shown above. A few other tips:

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

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharlyn Lauby September 3, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Nice list of resources. My fave is called Toobers and Zotz. They are soft, bendable and quiet. A former CEO of mine loved to come ‘hang out’ in training just to play with them.

Donna Highfill September 3, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Great ideas – I just led a conference where we threw around a ball and whatever topic was under your left thumb (the ball was covered in things like “Favorite childhood memory” or “Characteristic of a great leader”) you had to answer. Just the fun of seeing who could throw and catch got everybody laughing and interacting.

We never outgrow toys, we just are generally allowed to play anymore. Thanks again –


Jennifer September 4, 2010 at 4:35 am


Love your idea! I’ve done the Koosh ball toss, with people catching and responding to a question I’ve posed. However, the “words on the ball” is a new twist. Did you purchase the ball, or create it yourself?

Jennifer September 4, 2010 at 4:40 am


You were the one who inspired me to look at my toys. . .thanks! It’s always fun to “talk shop” with fellow learning facilitators.

Trish McFarlane September 6, 2010 at 7:51 am

My faves are small containers of Play-Doh and also Bendaroos. Both are fun for participants, keep them busy, are colorful and don’t make a mess. I learned to use toys during graduate studies at Webster University. The course on adult learning principles was amazing. Great post!

Jennifer September 8, 2010 at 12:25 pm


I love the idea of Bendaroos– need to get some of those into my toy bag!

Sylvia Westrup May 14, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hi Jennifer I also use fidget toys for adult training but being an evidence based organisation I was asked for the evidence – ie what research has been done that shows this helps learning. Do you have any references?
Best wishes
Sylvia Westrup
GCP Facilitator
Kent & Medway Comprehensive Research Network

Jennifer Miller May 14, 2012 at 10:46 am


Here’s a great resource page from the Center for Accelerated Learning:

Also, a great research page on the mind/body connection to learning:

Hope these references help you convince people in your organization that it’s OK to “fiddle” a bit while they engage in learning activities.

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