The Rise of the Fidget Spinner: What, Where, When, and How

Anyone outside of the education realm, or who does not regularly interact with children, might assume that a fidget spinner is some sort of spaceship contraption or an obscure item found on the shelves of a home improvement store. However, teachers, parents and, of course, children know all too well what a fidget spinner is—and we know that you will likely hear one before you will see one. Silly dramatics aside, the fidget spinner has swiftly entered classrooms and become a staple in many pencil pouches. Before we purchase, shun, recommend, or loathe these gadgets, it is important to look further at the intended purpose.

What are fidget cubes/spinners/balls/blocks for?

The colorful, handheld, spinning, clicking, toggling, shifting devices were initially intended to serve a therapeutic purpose. Research of students (and even adults) with ADHD, autism, anxiety, or PTSD has shown that small, repetitive motion can alleviate stress, anxiety, or the urge to move. The handheld devices are also thought to improve focus, memory and attentiveness. Much like the concept of the stress ball, the fidget craze began as an attempt to discreetly busy the hands while centering and focusing the mind.

Where should they be used?  

If looking solely at their cognitive or therapeutic purposes, fidget spinners and cubes can be seen in classrooms, small group academic settings, or at a study/homework work session. Since the repetitive motion and occupation of the hands are said to alleviate stress and anxiety, children could also make use of them at the doctor’s or dentist’s office, in the car while running errands, or any other instance in which a child or teen may need to center themselves to assuage any stressors.

When should they be used?

Students should feel able to use them at specific times only—not the entire school day for any purpose. If students are nervous or stressed about an upcoming presentation, quiz, or assessment, a fidget toy can act as a much-needed distraction from the nerves. A child could also benefit from a spinner or cube when she recognizes that her focus is waning. The movement and repetition provides mindless movement for the hands, while allowing the mind to focus on the reading, handout, etc. Fidgets can also be used during a sudden need to expel energy. Since it is not always plausible to stand up, do jumping jacks, or stretch out in the classroom setting, a fidget toy allows for inconspicuous movement in order to placate the restlessness.

How should they NOT be used?

And herein lies the issue with the rise of the fidget spinner—too much of a good thing can become a whirring, buzzing, spinning nightmare. Since the therapeutic toy crossed the boundary into “fad” territory, it has become problematic in many classrooms and academic environments. When crazed middle schoolers created such a rapid demand for spinners and cubes, the market responded with what I’d call “spinners on steroids.” What began as a subtle, silent, handheld trinket now has flashing lights, sound effects, and stainless steel mechanisms for extra heft. Outside of the classroom, there is no problem with these fancy fidgets; however, the attention tool has now become a big distraction for many students. Whether one is fidgeting or not, the constant murmur and spinning can be heard and seen in the periphery. YouTube has exploded with fidget spinner “tricks” and competitions. Schools are having to either ban or temporarily confiscate the more boisterous students’ spinners, only to be met with the issue of deciding which students need them versus which students want them. The pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction for some preteens—now diminishing their focus and motivation, which conflicts with the intentions of these gadgets to begin with.

Bottom line—if it helps the child focus, relax, and release, allow it. If the spinners are beginning to spin out of control, leave them for recess or settings other than the classroom.