The Fidget Fad

The spinning toys are getting banned in schools, but are they in fact useful?
child playing with fidget spinners
“This is my mantra for fidgets—they must be functional,” says Peggy Morris. Photo: Shutterstock
May 30, 2017

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My 10-year-old daughter was always a little fidgety during group time at school. She would pick at the carpet, scrape at the wallpaper, chew on her sleeve and generally just need to be doing something else while listening to the teacher. Over the years, her teachers have let her chew gum, hold a rubber ball, or play with a marble in a piece of felt. 

But this year, she has come home asking for squishy stress balls, stretchy “thinking” putty, fidget cubes with various tiny buttons and switches to slide and press, and now fidget spinners, mesmerizing propellers that you can hold in one hand and spin like a top.

All the kids were bringing these things to class, she said. Until, that is, the principal sent home a message saying, “There are some items that are better left at home. Toys (especially spinner/fidget toys) are a distraction and take children’s attention away from learning.”

I talked with Peggy Morris, G11, a lecturer in the Department of Occupational Therapy, and George Scarlett, senior lecturer and deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, about whether “fidgets,” as they are generically called, are toys or tools, and how to decide whether to get them for your kids.

Tufts Now: Although sitting still in school used to be the rule, is it recognized now that some kids just need to keep moving?

Peggy Morris: There really is no such thing as sitting still; we all readjust often when we sit. Think about how you shift your weight from one side to the other in your office chair, push it back, take a visual break from your screen as you look out your window, then dive back into your work. Part of what those subtle adjustments are about is helping you regain your attention and your ability to focus on the task at hand. We all lose our attention, momentarily or over a longer period. But as we grow, we learn strategies for regaining our attention.

Peggy MorrisThat is really what fidgets are about: using movement to help children regain their attention. If a child is struggling with recapturing lost attention using subtle body movements, then perhaps something less subtle, such as a fidget, may work.

How do fidgets work?

Morris: Research confirms that physical activity is correlated with improved academic achievement, and we assume that improved academics must be the result of improved attention, although there is little research on this connection.

Are things like stress balls, fidget cubes, etc., legitimate ways to help kids stay focused? 

Morris: It depends on the child. There is such a variety of characteristics in fidgets; we don’t usually know if a specific fidget will work until we try. Usually fidgets with a “stretchy” quality are the first to try. I have one on my key ring with beads that move along a stretchy cord; in a classroom, this would be quiet, so not disruptive to anyone else. That is probably one problem with the fidget spinners—the spinning attracts other children’s attention as well.

What is the history of using fidgets as therapeutic aids?

Morris: They have been used as therapeutic tools with children at school probably for the last 20 years or so. But outside of therapy, I want us to remember the fidgets we used in school. Do you remember spinning your ruler on your pencil? Fidgets have been around a long time.

I feel like most of the fidgets I’ve seen seem reasonable—I can imagine how they could keep hands busy without being a distraction—but the fidget spinners strike me as just an enjoyable toy that a clever marketer stuck the word “fidget” on.

Morris: I agree with you wholeheartedly. This particular fidget feels like a modern version of a yo-yo. There are even YouTube videos of tricks you can learn with this toy. I can easily see students using this as a toy and not a tool in a classroom, especially with models of “tricks” to perform.

How can you know if your child would benefit from using a fidget, using it as a tool, not a toy?

Morris: We have to try it and then gauge its success. If the child is attending to the fidget and not involved in their work: not a success. If the child is moving the fidget and simultaneously engaging in the activity at hand: success. This is my mantra for fidgets—they must be functional.

So if fidgets aren’t helping in the classroom, are they useless?

George ScarlettGeorge Scarlett: Fidget spinners follow a long tradition of toy fads or crazes—from hula hoops to Beanie Babies and now to fidget toys. Being part of a fad or craze can be fun for older children and adolescents—a way to connect to one’s peers and, in some cases, pleasantly distance oneself from one’s parents (who can be bemused and behind in getting into the craze). And like most fads having to do with toys, parents ask whether the toys are good for cognitive, emotional and social development, even as children ask, “Are they fun?” 

Children may be using the toys outside the classroom in a variety of fun and valuable ways—to make up games, to just hang out with peers in a fun way, etc. If children find good, harmless uses for fidget toys, then we should let them play with fidget toys and be happy that they are happy, too. Play, after all, is about thriving in the present, not preparing for the future.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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