What Often Gets Lost in the Debate over Fidget Spinners

by | Aug 12, 2017 | Attention / Focus

boy holding spinnerFidget spinners have been around since at least the early 1990s, maybe even earlier. Now, though, they’re A Thing – and a subject of occasionally furious debate.

Some insist that they help kids with attention deficits stay focused in the classroom. Others say they’re a distraction to others, even potentially dangerous – why else would so many schools have banned them?

Then there are those who roll their eyes and say it’s just a toy, for goodness sake, and wonder why anyone is panicking over just another fad.

But what often gets lost in the squabble is the real need that some folks seem to be responding to by allowing spinners in the classroom – and whether those gizmos are the best solution.

That need isn’t exclusive to kids with diagnosed attention issues. Children need to move. It’s how their vestibular (balance) system develops fully. It’s how they develop a strong sensory system.

elementary classroomFidgeting and lack of attention are natural consequences of the unnatural structure we ask children to adapt to. Kids are instinctively doing what they evolved to do. As occupational therapist Angela Hanscom has noted,

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.
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” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”

More, humans evolved with a tight relationship between cognition and physical activity. New research suggests that as humans developed into hunter-gatherers,

we began to engage in complex foraging tasks that were simultaneously physically and mentally demanding, and that may explain how physical activity and the brain came to be so connected.

“We think our physiology evolved to respond to those increases in physical activity levels, and those physiological adaptations go from your bones and your muscles, apparently all the way to your brain,” says [David] Raichlen, an associate professor in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“It’s very odd to think that moving your body should affect your brain in this way—that exercise should have some beneficial impact on brain structure and function—but if you start thinking about it from an evolutionary perspective, you can start to piece together why that system would adaptively respond to exercise challenges and stresses,” he says.

Currently, there is no good evidence that fidget spinners actually improve focus or relieve anxiety, let alone meet students’ developmental needs.

“Just sitting and fidgeting with something is not going to really be that beneficial to a child with hyperactivity and inattention,” Janine Artis, a mental health clinician in Williamsville, N.
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Y., told the Now Cleveland.

As Duke University professor and clinical psychologist Scott Collins told NPR, “It’s important for parents and teachers who work with kids who have ADHD to know that there are very well studied and documented treatments that work, and that they’re out there, so there’s not really quick and easy fixes like buying a toy.”

kids doing yoga in classroomYoga is one of those treatments that work. It not only fills the immediate need for movement; it nurtures skills such as physical and emotional regulation and mindfulness that are beneficial over the long haul. Playing with a spinner “may be fun or distracting,”

Still, what a child often may really need is the opportunity to stand, stretch or take a walk, explains [UC Davis professor and psychologist Julie] Schweitzer.

[Occupational therapist Varleisha] Gibbs recommends wall push-ups and yoga poses. She also laments the fact that many schools have cut the amount of time kids spend at recess or in gym classes. Andrew Bonini, for instance, only has gym two out of every six school days.

Movement may be essential for many children with sensory disorders, but it’s important for everyone. Fidget spinners may help relieve some squirminess, but they won’t take the place of real exercise. “Kids are meant to move and to experience the world around them using their senses,” says [occupational therapist Claire] Heffron in Ohio. She argues that “the more we can build opportunities for movement and sensory input into their school day, the better.”

In fact, this is one of the reasons why so many teachers (and OTs!) have embraced Yoga Calm. Its activities are easily woven throughout the school day. Many of our teachers use it for transitions, as well as for test prep to relieve anxiety and improve focus. Some even blend it through whole academic lessons, combining the physical and emotional with the cognitive. (One perk of Yoga Calm Certification: access to our ever-growing library of lesson plans – a treasure trove of ideas from working educators for implementing Yoga Calm in your own classroom, clinic, or other setting.)

In a compelling reflection on why fidget spinners are so hot right now, media expert Ian Bogost suggests they’re symptomatic of the hyper-individualism that marks our current culture.

It is a toy for the hand alone—for the individual. Ours is not an era characterized by collaboration between humans and earth—or Earth, for that matter. Whether through libertarian self-reliance or autarchic writ, human effort is first seen as individual effort—especially in the West.

But self-reliance can only take you so far. We are made human and whole by our relationships – precisely why Community is one of the five Yoga Calm principles. The classroom is a place ripe for the blossoming of mutually-supportive relationships, for connecting with and learning from others.

We should encourage that, not grasp for more quick fixes that fail to address the underlying needs of our kids.

Images: boy with spinner by Ryan Dickey, classroom by Liz, via Wikimedia Commons;
tree circle by Kathy Flaminio, 1000 Petals


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