The scientific underpinnings everyone’s favorite fidget spinners
As the parent of a second grader, I’m apparently obligated to have an opinion or concern over the fad/scourge/salvation known as fidget spinners. Our household now owns a lovely metallic-purple spinner, and it hasn’t made a huge difference in our lives one way or the other. This may be because they’re just toys exploiting kids’ (humans’?) desire to keep up with their peers, but it may also be because fidgeting isn’t often an issue my daughter seems to struggle with. This point may actually tell me more about my daughter than the spinners though, as some researchers suggest that the toys are sort of a tool for self-regulation, and as such every person may benefit differently from playing with them.
The fuss about fidgeting
For those of you outside the parenting bubble, a fidget spinner is a flat, three pronged piece of metal or plastic with rounded edges. Each prong flares out wide enough to accommodate a small disc inside that can turn on internal bearings. In the center of all this is another disc, which again can turn on internal bearings. You then interact with a spinner by holding the center disc like an axle, flicking the outer prongs to watch it spin. It’s oddly satisfying just to flick, but some kids take it farther by trying to do tricks, and in some cases, accidentally discovering rotational inertia (more on that here).
The fidget concept is that instead of getting distracted during an otherwise sedentary activity, like a classroom lecture, you can keep your hands busy with your spinner. This isn’t actually that odd an idea, and many adults that twiddle pencils, click retractable pens, or maybe doodle already employ the same strategy that spinners promise— by giving your hands something to do, you’re actually fine-tuning your stimulation levels. If all goes well, you should be able to improve your overall concentration by finding just the right balance of activity levels. For some people, an object to manipulate in their hand might not be necessary. For others, those small amounts of movement may really make a difference— some studies have found that kids who have something to wiggle with actually have their test score improve.
Finding the right balance
The downside of fidget spinners may be that they can occupy too much of one’s attention. If you go beyond just flicking them in your hand by attempting balancing tricks, you’re likely to want to look at the spinner at the same time, which will draw you away from class, your meeting, the deposition, etc. In that sense, clicking pens or other toys, like fidget cubes, may be superior at helping us moderate our activity without demanding too much concentration. In some cases, the best option isn’t in one’s hands, but under one’s butt— our local elementary school will let kids swap their chairs for exercise balls, which is basically another way to let students manage their activity and stimulation.
So a fidget spinner may not be a bad idea, but it may miss its design goals ever so slightly. This imperfect match for their stated purpose of managing activity and stimulation may doom them to being the fad many are labeling them as, but that doesn’t mean the underlying ideas aren’t worth paying attention to.
My second grader said: I can balance my spinner without looking at it! Look!
Source: Fidget toys aren’t just hype by Katherine Isbister, The Conversation