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This season's hottest toy is marketed as an antidote for
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and
autism — but it's also being banned in classrooms
across the country.
"Fidget spinners" are small, ball-bearing devices that
the user can rotate between his or her fingers. The
momentum of the toy provides a pleasing sensory
experience, according to user reviews, while the
challenge of tossing, transferring and twirling the
spinners has spawned an entire universe of
instructional YouTube videos. [How Fidget Spinners
Work: It's All About the Physics]
Many spinners are marketed as aides for individuals
with anxiety, autism and ADHD; Cppslee's spinner
marketing patter on Amazon, for example, promises
greater concentration for people with those conditions, plus an opportunity to "bring out that creative genius lying deep within you."
[Why Fidget Spinners Are So Hot (and Where to Buy Them)]
Unsurprisingly, these claims are probably overblown, scientists say.
"Using a spinner-like gadget is more likely to serve as a distraction than a benefit for individuals with ADHD," said Mark Rapport, a
clinical psychologist at the University of Central Florida who has studied the benefits of movement on attention in people with ADHD.
(The so-called fidget cube — which is a plastic cube equipped with various buttons and dials for fidgeting hands — may be more
classroom friendly, according to a scientist who studies intersection of human computer interaction and games, who pointed out on
the website The Conversation that the cube doesn't require visual attention. "They can serve the same purpose as the spinners, but are
more classroom-ready and less distracting," Katherine Isbister, professor of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa
Cruz, wrote on The Conversation.)
Regardless of their usefulness in keeping kids' distracted brains focused, fidget spinners have sparked a conversation about attention spans
in kids and how to help the little ones focus, experts told Live Science. For instance, though there isn't a lot of data supporting the idea
that kids have less focus today than in the past, some research does suggest attention spans have decreased as multitasking has increased
with the digital age, one expert said. There are various methods for bringing kids' focus back to the lesson at hand, psychologists say,
including fidgeting devices, activity breaks and the simple removal of extra distractions. (The devices may also teach kids something
about physics, or at least ball bearings.)
A Trend Erupts
Fidget spinners emerged this spring, seemingly from out of nowhere, as a must-have gadget.
Before December 2016, Google searches for the words "fidget spinner" were basically
nonexistent. Now, teachers are posting about their frustrations with spinner-obsessed students
on Twitter, and the toys even have their own forum on Reddit.
"I will call you 'Annoying Spinny Thing' and you will live in my desk drawer," Kansas Spanish
teacher Amanda Dickey tweeted, punctuating her message with #fidgetspinner and
#teacherprobs. [How to Do Timeout: 12 Tips from Science]
Most of the controversy surrounding fidget spinners has been over schools banning them from classrooms. An elementary school
principal in Evanston, Illinois, Kate Ellison, told the Chicago Tribune that the spinners have been a distraction in classrooms in her
school, and that children with special needs have other, school-friendly options for fidgeting. Meanwhile, some parents of kids with
special needs have hailed the toys' benefits. One blogger, a parent of an 8-year-old with autism, wrote on AutismAwareness.com
that her daughter was thrilled to see her classmates wanting to fidget just like her. School-approved fidget devices mark her daughter as
different, wrote Miriam Gwynne, but fidget spinners are simply cool.
"For her, the fidget spinner is not a must-have craze to be like her friends, but more a stress release from the demands placed upon
her during her school day — much the same as she uses a stress ball or her twist-and-lock blocks," Gwynne wrote. "When schools
decide to ban sensory and fidget toys, they risk isolating the very children they’ve spent years trying to include." [25 Scientific Tips for
Raising Happy Kids]
The list of schools banning the spinners seems to be growing and now includes schools in Massachusetts, Brooklyn, New York,
Florida, Chicago, Illinois, and even across the pond in Manchester, England.
At least one expert is disappointed by the bans. "These little gadgets should be called fidget tools, not toys, and they can be part of a
successful strategy for managing fidgety behavior if they are introduced as a normal part of the classroom culture," said Claire
Heffron, a pediatric occupational therapist in Cleveland, as reported by The Washington Post.
Even so, teachers say that most kids are using the spinners as toys, focusing on them rather than on class, according to news reports.
There's no doubt that toys that allow kids to fidget can benefit kids with autism.
Occupational therapists often use sensory toys like tactile discs, Koosh balls and even putties
or clays to soothe kids who have sensory-processing issues. Similarly, research has shown
that movement can help kids with ADHD to focus. A 2015 study published in the Journal
of Abnormal Child Psychology by Rapport and his colleagues looked at 8- to 12-year-old
kids with ADHD. The researchers found that those who participated in gross motor activity
— meaning the movement of limbs or large parts of the body — performed better than
those who sat still during tasks involving working memory, which is a type of memory used for processing incoming information.
Exercise has also been proven to be helpful for kids with ADHD.
But without studies that specifically look at fidget spinners, it's impossible to say for sure whether the devices could help kids with
ADHD, Rapport told Live Science. He conjectured that the little handheld toys are not likely to help much. They don't require gross
body movement, he said, which is what appears to be responsible for increasing activity in the frontal and prefrontal brain areas that are
responsible for sustaining attention. The spinners are also visually distracting, and so they could pull a child's attention away from the
chalkboard or teacher, Rapport said.
"Riding a stationary bike while reading, or sitting on a movement ball while working at one's desk, in contrast, allows small
(non-distracting) motor movements and would probably prove beneficial for many children with ADHD," Rapport wrote in an email
to Live Science.
Original article on Live Science.
Find this article and more in the June/July issue of Prescott Parent Magazine!