Fidget Spinners – Tool or Toy?

The appropriate level of alertness in order to be at our best varies from one activity to another. Playing a rugby game requires a different level of activity and response than attending to a writing task in a classroom. Both may require attention and concentration in order to give of our best, but different children would find one or the other activity easier to attend to. One of the reasons is that we each have our own unique sensory personality and this affects our social, emotional and attentive responses in any given situation. These differences and preferences can be seen in every age and stage of life. Some toddlers seek out the most challenging movement experiences and love to spin and run and tumble as fast as they can. Other toddlers may be more cautious where movement is concerned and prefer to stay more in control of their walking and climbing activities, seeming to be more measured and less frenetic in these types of activities. Similarly, some school going children find sitting on a ball during classwork time or fidgeting with a piece of prestik while listening to their teacher helps them to concentrate and attend better in that environment. For another child in the same classroom, sitting on a ball may be far too distracting and he may end up bouncing all over the room instead of focusing on the task at hand. The prestik in another child’s hand may end up being used to create a wonderful little creature – however, she will not be attending to the lesson while she is creating her masterpiece!


Many of us use a form of fidgeting to help us stay focused. We may doodle, click a pen, tap our foot, bounce a knee, chew gum, sit on a ball, twirl our hair, play with prestik, change positions, unfurl a paper clip or hum to ourselves. While many of these are done without the knowledge of people sitting beside us, some of them could cause others distraction by the movement or noise they make. Herein lies the balance of which type of fidgeting or fidget tool is appropriate in any given environment. Occupational Therapists and Teachers have been using fidget objects for quite some time to help children to stay in a calm, alert state to help them in the classroom. The type of fidget object is quite important, just as important as its effectiveness with the specific child that is using it. Not every child needs one and because of each child’s unique sensory personality, what works for one child may have the opposite effect for another.


So how then should we decide what type of fidget tools to try out? The answer to that can best be explained by the reasons to use them in the first place. The main reasons would be to aid attention, concentration and to assist in decreasing anxiety. With that in mind, here are some helpful principles in looking at fidget tools:


  • Does this have a calming effect or a distracting effect on your child? You may need to trial a few different objects before finding one that works well and this may change over time as well.
  • Does this object allow your child to focus on the task at hand? All kids love to fidget! But they can fidget to play and be totally distracted by the object, so make sure the tool you have chosen has the desired effect. Generally, this means it should be something easy to manipulate with one hand, can have a repetitive motion (e.g. flicking, spinning, squeezing, rubbing) and does not require vision (i.e. could it be manipulated easily in a pocket?). These easy, repetitive movements can allow your child to still focus on the task set out for them while “mindlessly” fidgeting with their tool.
  • Does this have a distracting effect on others around your child? If it makes a noise, requires large movements or lights up it is probably not a good choice for a group environment. If it requires vision to manipulate it, it will probably distract those sitting next to your child as she would need to have it in her visual field to use it and thus it would be in her friends’ visual fields as well.
  • Does it require 2 hands to use? Most of the time a fidget tool needs to be used with one hand only in order to free up the other (usually dominant hand) for the task set for your child. It could be a writing or drawing task, a reading task or an object-based task. Sitting on the mat and listening to a story or a lesson may present the opportunity to use 2 hands, but this would not be the sole time requiring attention and concentration. If 2 hands are required it usually means a more complex level of coordination is needed and often eye-hand coordination as well. This negates the background, easy, repetitive nature that a fidget tool can offer in order to assist attention rather than divide it or pull it away.
  • Does it have a natural flicking/fidgeting/movement component? Twirling a lock of hair, clicking a pen or squeezing a stress ball are all examples of easy, natural movements that do not require complex thought processes to achieve. These can be more habitual, background movements which do not require much energy. The more unnatural and complex the fidgeting movement that is required, the more brain energy is needed to be diverted to this task.
  • Is it providing constantly changing stimulation? If the noise level, movement frequency or action, or visual stimulus changes (e.g. the object lights up when spun/flicked/twirled) then you no longer have a fidget tool, but rather an attention grabbing fidget toy. While this can provide hours of fun, it is probably not a great choice to assist with attention!
  • Does my child need assistance to attend during class or dampen feelings of anxiety? For many children a fidget toy is not necessary and if provided with one they may well use it as a toy rather than a tool to assist them with learning.


After considering these questions you could select a variety of objects to test out should you feel they may assist your child in the classroom or any other environment. Be sure to do this in conjunction with your child’s teacher/tutor or coach and observe the effects. Be sure to get feedback from his teacher as well as asking him which tool he found most helpful (not which one was the most fun to play with!). Some ideas of fidget tools which are usually not too disruptive in a classroom include: stress balls, prestik or putty, elastic bands or stretchy rubber toys (e.g. a worm or stretchy hand), basic fidget cubes, paper clips, an uninflated balloon filled with flour, a marble or smooth stone, a small container with a soft lid to flick open and closed (e.g. a tictac container). These all work well in an office environment to, so don’t be shy to test them out to see if you are a natural fidgeter or not!


On a more serious note, if you are concerned about your child’s attention, concentration or anxiety levels please don’t look to fidget tools to be the cure. Rather consult with a professional who can look at a holistic view and assist your child in the areas they may need support in. Using fidget tools may be a small part of that support, but finding the underlying cause and treating that would be the top priority.


So where does that leave the craze of the fidget spinners?! Are they helpful tools or really cool toys? If we take a look at our guiding questions on fidget tools, they are sadly probably not the best choice for a classroom situation. But they are undeniably very clever little gadgets that both young and old can enjoy; definitely an upgrade on the yo-yo!


Happy fidgeting!!!

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