Children were not meant to sit still, and yet, this is the basic proposition behind school. The premise is that children learn best when confined to a chair and forced to resist the impulse toward movement.
This approach to learning is of course based on the basic philosophical assumption that children are inanimate objects meant to be held in a stationary position and stuffed with information. But advocates of the fidget spinner see things differently. According to retailers of the hottest current fad in middle school classrooms, a bit of constructive movement can enhance focus, reduce anxiety, and give busy little hands something to do while the mind is occupied with academic pursuits.
Indeed, their manufacturers claim that fidget spinners are a valuable way of reigning in a child's natural impulse toward mental wandering. In fact, some say the device is particularly beneficial to those with learning differences like autism and ADHD as well as to those with mood or anxiety disorders.
Regardless of learning style, the kids love ‘em, at least for now.
But you know who hates them? Teachers.
And if you'd ever spent ten minutes in a room full of kids spinning, rolling and chucking these things in an unending maelstrom of indiscriminately-spent kinetic energy, you'd know why. Straight up, these things are crazy annoying. Obviously, kids can also be crazy annoying. When you combine the two, well…it's not hard to understand why classroom fidget bans are spreading almost as fast as the fad itself.
Spinners and other fidget toys are quickly joining the long list of irritating school-banned preadolescent fads that included, at one point or another, Garbage Pail Kids, Slap Bracelets, and Pogs. By contrast to these relatively innocuous but pointless forms of schoolyard contraband though, claims abound that spinners actually carry some benefits.
But do they really? And are these benefits enough to justify how annoying they are?
The Fidgetal Revolution
In case you're not up on junior high popular culture, a fidget spinner is a small, handheld item, typically shaped like a tricornered throwing star and encasing a set of ball bearings. These ball bearings help transform student hands into a thousand little perpetual motion machines, defying the basic laws of physics with their incessant twirling.
According to an article in Newsweek, nobody really knew or cared about these things mere months ago. They were actually invented by chemical engineer Catherine Hettinger in the early ‘90s but were fairly obscure until Forbes featured them as a part of a December 2016 piece on “must have” office toys. They're proliferation through adult gadget culture was slow, but when the kids caught on, spinners exploded. Sadly, Hettinger's patent on the spinners expired after the standard ten years, meaning that she has enjoyed no spoils whatsoever from this generation's “pet rock.”
That's too bad because right now, nothing in the toy market comes even close in the category of hotness. Check out this Google Trends chart for searches on the term “fidget spinner.” The term is at its peak popularity at the time of writing here in mid-May. Searches came in at 2% of this high point as recently as March 2nd.
For an idea of just how quickly spinners have whizzed from anonymity to celebrity status, check out Amazon's Top 20 Toys and Games. At the time of writing, fidget toys occupy all Top 20 spots. That's quite a coup.
Toystore owner Tom Jones reported to USA Today that his Oxford, Michigan shop can move up to 150 a day.
And it kind of makes sense. They have everything you need to set off a gadget epidemic. At anywhere between $.99 and $9.99, they can be had at the cost of a weekly allowance. Alternately, it could cost a parent an easy three bucks to distract their kids from fighting with each other in the backseat of the car, for like, a whole ten minutes.
Full disclosure, I even went out and bought one for myself...for the purposes of research of course. I bought the first crummy one I could find, a cheap plastic thing with an army camouflage design. It wouldn't make me any friends on the playground, where kids have all kinds of fancy, chrome, light-up, glow-in-the-dark spinners to show off. But I have to say, there is something oddly satisfying about spinning this little thing.
It may even be a little addictive:
On top of that, they come in all kinds of shiny colors and sparkly variations, making them at once highly collectible and conducive to swapping. You can also do some pretty cool tricks with them. Check out this YouTube video for a primer on a few basic fidget maneuvers.
But now, spinners are so popular that they've become a nuisance. That's kind of what happens when everybody's got one. Principals and teachers are neither calmed nor soothed by these things.
John McDonald, assistant principal at Delano Elementary School in Minnesota explained that "Because it's a distraction we are no longer allowing them in school and if they do bring them to school, we will take them, hold on to them and then give them back at the end of the day.”
USA Today points to a middle school in Williamstown, N.J. that requires students to keep spinners in their backpacks during the school day because they've quickly become a distraction in the classroom. And they aren't just a distraction either. Naturally, kids are also finding ways to hurt themselves and others. After a spate of twirling accidents involving children's faces, a New York elementary school sent a letter home asking parents to ensure their children are leaving their spinners at home.
Other schools have a strict policy of confiscation.
This is more than an anecdotal set of circumstances. CBS News reports that of the 200 largest schools in the United States, fidget spinners are now banned in 32% of classrooms, hallways and cafeteria.
You have to hand it to fidget spinners. A 32% rate of in-school prohibition in under a month of mainstream popularity? That is a remarkably rapid ascent.
Short Attention Spin
Now, I'm the first guy to kick against the pricks of educational authoritarianism. To heck with all your rules, right? But teachers kind of have a point.
As noted, spinners are shaped like throwing stars and one can't help but wonder at the aerodynamic possibilities. Soooo, obviously, kids are going to throw them. And kids are going to spin them too close to one another's eyeballs. And in one unfortunate case, a child even swallowed a spinner and was sent to the emergency room for dislodging. Granted, that's an isolated incident, and you could accidentally swallow almost anything. But still…
Whatever their beneficial properties, if you're a teacher, fidget spinners are super annoying. And any time a bunch of kids are collecting objects that promote envy, trading, competition, and the occasional projectile usage, it creates a set of oversight responsibilities that are also pretty darn annoying.
But what if it's worth the distraction? What do child psychologists think of this whole fad?
Well, on that subject, retailers of these spinners have offered some pretty lofty promises to students with autism, ADHD and anxiety. But how much do spinners really help?
According to Nickey Dee, a teacher at Abu Dhabi's Reach British School who doesn't hate spinners, “When one deals with students who have special needs—think more along the lines of autism and Asperger's—these spinners prove to be quite effective in keeping the students' attention and focus, as it does provide them with the distraction they need to occupy their hands. It also helps define motor skills."
Special needs teacher Michelle Perry confirmed this claim from firsthand experience, noting that her son has both Asperger's and ADHD. She observed that "If he's having some sensory overload, he will just sit and spin them rather than have a meltdown. If he's reading, he will spin the toy and actually comprehend the material better.”
Indeed, for many children and families who grapple with learning differences on the autism spectrum, the benefit of fidget items is nothing new. According to Dr Mohammed Jalil Al Fahim, director of the Future Rehabilitation Centre for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi, “any item or strategy that allows a child to fall back on a distraction can be beneficial if that child—or even an adult—suffers from anxiety or trauma symptoms.”
Preliminary research confirms that this may be true for student with attention deficit issues as well. UC Davis scientist Julie Schweitzer conducted a study of kids with ADHD as they performed various mental tasks. Schweitzer found that the more intensely her subjects fidgeted, they higher they scored on these tasks. She hypothesized that the arousal created by physical movement generates neurotransmitters, which in turn, improve focus. Thought, she assess, can sometimes require motion. In other words, there are genuine cognitive benefits to controlled fidgeting, at least for those whose learning approach is impacted by attention deficit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places the number of children between ages 4 and 17 with ADHD at roughly 11%. For those kids, fidget spinners may be useful, provided that their beholders effectively remain visually focused on the teacher and the lesson at hand.
Advocates say that the calming diversion provided by spinners aligns with a number of occupational therapy strategies. But don't be fooled into thinking this is the consequence of hard empirical research. Any number of development professionals also suggest that spinners might have the opposite of their intended effect. According to Dr. Mark Wolraich, a behavioral pediatrician at Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center, “Things that are routine or have some demand, it's much harder for children with ADHD to be able to pay attention. And so, [the spinner] may well make things worse for them.”
And what about kids who don't grapple with attention deficit or spectrum learning differences? I didn't have a diagnosis as a kid, but I didn't need a doctor to tell me that school was boring and sitting still was a drag. Might I have benefitted from the fidget spinner?
Well Schweitzer's findings, for one, do not extend to children without deficit disorders or other learning differences. While the devices are advertised as stress-reducers, there's no proof that they improve focus for the average student. In fact, if you ask most teachers, the average student is impacted in exactly the opposite manner.
This distinction is why, in some schools, where the devices have been banned from mainstream usage, special needs children are given an exception.
But clinical psychologist Dr. Amanda Gummer observes that the ban and its accompanying special needs exception are something of a lost opportunity. In some schools, she says, fidget spinners originated in the hands of students with focus challenges but ultimately gained mainstream popularity among children of every learning style. With the ban now introduced at one-third of schools, fidget spinners are once again being relegated only to the hands of those with special needs.
Dr. Gummer notes that "It was great to see a toy like this in the mainstream…Children with additional needs often struggle to fit in and be the cool kids, and it was really nice to see a toy that they have that everybody else wants…But if they get banned except for children who are on a list, then that stigma gets reintroduced.”
Spinning In Oblivion
Naturally, banning stuff in schools almost always makes it more popular, at least in the short run. But at the end of this discussion, the reality is that spinners are a fad. Like most adolescent fads, this one will someday not far off be a quaint and fondly-remembered artifact from this specific moment in history. This is not to say that its therapeutic benefits are or are not legit. It's probably different for everybody. And since everybody's got one, it's pretty difficult to prove that there's any consistent or universal benefit to ownership.
And now that it has rapidly achieved critical mass, it's only a matter of time before parents start playing with them. And once that happens, it's all over. Nothing makes a youth fad more uncool than the dopey embrace of well-meaning adults.
Whatever the tactile sensation or cultural permeation of the object, anything that gets popular that quickly, costs that little, and performs with so limited a range of functions is bound for a shoebox in your attic somebody. I'd bet my Beanie Baby collection on it