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Fidget Spinner Craze: Benefit or Bust?

May 17, 2017

Author: Andrea DeSantis, PT, MSOT, SEP©, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Sensory and Body Regulation Program Coordinator

   The latest toy craze is the “Fidget Spinner”, but like any new item at ANDRUS, our staff has been discussing how to best incorporate it in the most beneficial manner. ANDRUS utilizes a broad array of sensory and body regulation tools aimed at organizing brain areas responsible for attention, anxiety, and emotions. The brain science behind this approach has emerged from a variety of researchers as early as 1969 by neuroscientist and sensory integration occupational therapist Jean Ayres, and has since accelerated across all disciplines over the past several decades. As a result, the power of using daily sensory regulation, movement, and breathing has been recognized and put into practice in the fields of education, physical health, and psychology for optimal brain body connection. Engaging the whole body and breath has been associated with improving many conditions such as anxiety, depression, attention problems, autism, trauma reactivity, and depression (See references below), and is a philosophy that is at the core of our approach at ANDRUS.

We provide a program rich in sensory and body regulation activities which we embed into our daily curriculum and residential cottages. In addition to breathing and mindfulness practices such as yoga, we find that engaging the bigger body senses involving muscles and joints (proprioception) and gravity and balance (vestibular system) are more powerful in improving brain areas responsible for self-calming and enhancing attention. We also have 4 sensory rooms, managed by Occupational Therapists, where children can take 10 minute proactive breaks to discharge excessive energy by engaging these bigger body senses followed by calming activities that support them back to class with a more focused demeanor.

The general use of sedentary hand fidgets have their place because it may provide an outlet for excessive activity or anxiety. It might also improve focus to some degree. However, it may not have the same powerful and long lasting impact on the brain and body as do regular and organized movement. More specifically, a 2015 study on attention, hyperactivity, and motor activity showed that intense movement in children ages 10-17 with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affected brain areas responsible for arousal/attention which resulted in better performance and focus (Hartanto et al, 2015). This study suggests that excessive body movement, including the frequently seen squirming and wiggling in children with ADHD, may serve to enhance the “alerting” brain circuits which can trigger the individual’s ability to stay focused and complete their work. While hand held tools like the ‘Fidget Spinner’ and stress balls may be helpful in the short term to improve attention and decrease anxiety, instead more whole-body intense movement has been found to correlate with better performance (Rapport et als, 2009, Haranto, 2015).

At ANDRUS, we have observed that while our students are highly motivated to use ‘Fidget Spinners’, we remain skeptical about them because of the possibility of the negative impact that they can have on a child’s learning and behavior. In fact, this device has been banned at many schools because of conflicts that it can create between fellow students. It can distract the user and others away from learning. While sitting and fidgeting may be helpful in the short term for improving attention and reducing anxiety in certain situations, it can become a habitual pattern that encourages a sedentary habit and decreased positive social interaction.

On the other hand, some of the positive observations we have seen here at ANDRUS is that some children use it when anxious or to help distract them from negative provoking from peers or even to create positive social connections with their peers. For example, as I was talking with an 8th grader with attention difficulties and hyperactivity about ways to help regulate his body when anxious, he listened but as he started to lose his focus, he pulled out his ‘Fidget Spinner’ and remained engaged for the remainder of the conversation. He exhibited healthy self-awareness as he told me that this gadget helps him to better process verbal information. Other children have been eager to show each other their ‘Fidget Spinner’, which has resulted in many positive connections, such as when I witnessed 3 children on the playground showing different tricks and sharing with each other in a calm and well-regulated manner. Some delighted in holding it on one finger. And of course, a new item like this is initially always a big boredom buster and it can keep people occupied for hours.

There are several pros and cons of using the ‘Fidget Spinner’, but we are working towards putting a positive “spin” on it here at ANDRUS. We are implementing it with a mindful focus on each individual child and classroom, allowing it to be intermittently used within our overall body-based approaches to support academics and social/emotional skills. While it can help reduce stress from the demands of the school day, we continue to focus on expanding a child’s repertoire of whole brain/body regulation strategies to help with attention and emotional coping. The use of large-body movement breaks and proactive use of our sensory rooms at ANDRUS have continually resulted in a significant reduction in out of program behavior. Similar to research reports, we observe that when children engage in regularly scheduled rhythmic movements that involve both sides of the body, they are more available for learning and engagement. Since group movement is also embedded into our culture here, it is less stigmatizing than holding a fidget tool. Movement in large spaces with peers provides many opportunities to enrich brain-body circuits responsible for developing reciprocal conversation, personal space, focused planning, and thinking ahead. While we continue to find appropriate ways to use the fidget spinner, our main goal is to have our children get up, move, and interact, rather than sit down and spin!




About the author: Dr. Andrea DeSantis has worked with families and children for over 25 years. She brings her unique multidisciplinary background in psychology, physical and occupational therapy to support complex developmental difficulties. She also has a private practice in Pleasantville seeing children, families, and adults with a variety of learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges.




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