We are always complaining that children spend too much time on screens and should be playing more. The fidget spinner has taken the world by storm and it is THE toy that is distracting children from screens and giving them a very different brain-body play experience. Fidget spinners provide an active play experience and they are intriguing gadgets that beg to be mastered.

The fidget spinner has broad appeal to both old and young, across race and gender. It is a fascination toy that has captured the imagination en masse. It is great for stimulating the tips of the fingers which few toys do. It requires concentration and fine motor co-ordination. You can sit and play with it or get really athletic as can be seen in some of the Youtube tips and tricks videos. I have posted a video at the end of this blog.

The fact  some of these videos are attracting over 7.9-million viewers, just goes to show that this craze is huge and manufacturers and retailers are jumping on the bandwagon as they did with crazes like loombands and yoyos before them. And with prices varying from entry level at around R75 up into the hundreds for fancy fidget spinners, it is a toy that is accessible to all. Everyone can play. And boy, don’t we all need to play more today!

What is a fidget spinner?

It’s generally a three pronged device no bigger than the palm of one’s hand that has some form of ball bearing in the middle allowing it to spin. You hold onto it in the middle with thumb and forefinger, and spin it with the other fingers on the outside.

The objective is to get it to spin fast and for as long as possible and, everyday, kids are finding new ways to play with them.  They can be made out of metal or plastic and some can look like waste that has been put to good use, while others are very stylishly designed with LED lights and sounds too.

While the fidget spinners have huge play value, there have been reports of them being banned from schools – read on for my take on this, and there have been reports of children choking on the ball bearings. Fidget spinners are not to be put in the mouth or used by very young children!

Fidget spinners as toys for fun

You just have to watch kids playing with fidget spinners, or hop on to Youtube, to see why they are such fun. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Challenging
  • Creative
  • Can learn new things all the time – passing it from hand to hand, around the body, throwing it in the air and catching it, etc
  • Can try and outdo others in terms of how long you can keep it spinning or not drop it
  • Can be played with alone or in a group eg. passing it around like pass the parcel, only this parcel is spinning
  • Low price point to entry making it accessible to many
  • Collectible – there is a wide variety to choose from
  • Low tech fun
  • Off-screen fun
  • Physical
  • Wakes up the brain
  • Releases endorphins (happiness hormones) when achieving a movement
  • Kids keep on trying which encourages perseverance

Fidget spinners as learning tools

Fidget spinners are being marketed for their therapeutic value for ADD, anxiety and autism, but can also be seen from an educational and developmental point of view as good for:

  • Fine motor control
  • Eye-hand co-ordination
  • Manual dexterity
  • Isolation of finger movements
  • Strengthening the pencil grip
  • Motor planning
  • Muscle development in hand and fingers

Fidget spinners for therapy

They have been touted as having therapeutic benefits for the following although there seems to be no scientific evidence:

  • Anxiety – it can distract children from their anxiety helping them to concentrate on the task at hand
  • ADD/ADHD – it helps them to focus as above
  • Sensory seeking individuals – they get sensory input from the fidget spinner
  • For children who need movement and input in order to concentrate better

Fidget spinners are a fabulous addition to the tools used in the therapy rooms for children.  Occupational therapists love them for all the developmental, learning and therapeutic benefits they provide. The fact that they fascinate a child is an added bonus when you need to help a child to rewire their brain through the body by doing not hundreds, but thousands of repetitions of a movement to get it right and improve the quality of that movement, and therefore the wiring in the brain.

Controversy in the classroom

Fidget spinners are not only being used by children as assistive tools in the learning environment to help them to concentrate, but are now being played with en masse, and I can imagine that this could be incredibly distracting to a teacher who is faced with 25 – 35 children all spinning their fidget spinners at the same time. It must feel a little like you are being tuned out, especially if they are the noise-making variety of spinners, which many are.

The children who really need fidget spinners are the same ones who would need to sit on balls and wedges or squeeze stress balls in their hands in class, to help them to be less anxious and to concentrate better. They are in the minority. But a classroom of kids playing with them all a the same time would be completely distracting not only to the teacher but to everyone. And this is why they are being banned from schools and classrooms.

Commonsense needs to prevail. Some guidelines:

  • In the classroom:
    • A whole classroom full of children spinning gadgets is unlikely to be a productive one, so let’s leave them for playground use.
    • If they are being used as dangerous missiles – this is not their intended use – then this also means that children will lose the privilege of using them at school.
    • Teachers could jump on the bandwagon of fun, and do one-minute wake up the brain sessions with fidget spinners at the beginning of a class or in the middle of a double period, as long as their learners respect that fidget spinners are off limits for the rest of the time.
  • At home:
    • Fidget spinners would not be allowed at my dinner table
    • In certain environments, such as restaurants or place of worship, they would not be allowed due to the possibility of distracting other people

Says one of my colleagues, occupational therapist and remedial therapist, Cara Lee Weir-Smith, “Fidget spinners are pure genius despite the controversy in the classroom. At the end of the day, education is all about creating life long learners and a love for learning and growth in our children. School should be fun and kids should enjoy the school experience. Every child should be given the opportunity to learn in a way that works for them in the classroom and some, if not many, would certainly benefit from a small amount of socially acceptable, appropriate fidgeting.” Cara is also Director of Impact Learning, www.impactlearning.co.za

Whether fidget spinners are a quick in and out craze, or whether they will stay around for some time, is anyone’s guess. Just keep perspective. There is play value, educational value and therapeutic value to fidget spinners. But, if the very tools that are supposedly meant to help children to focus, become a distraction in the learning environment, then we need to bring in some boundaries and commonsense, that goes like this:  “There is a time and a place for using fidget spinners. Respect that, and you can play to your heart’s content.”