Fidget spinners seem to have appeared magically in the hands of virtually every kid in the U.S. over the past two months. But where did they come from and why are they being touted as a tool to help with focus and concentration? Is there any science behind fidget spinners?
It’s not surprising that parents and educators would pine for a tool that could enhance concentration in 21st century screen-addicted kids, but do fidget spinners really help kids focus?
Some of us just need to fidget.
Over the years, hundreds of tools and toys have been used to promote focus and concentration, including prayer beads, Silly Putty, paperclips, chewing gum, rosaries, elastic bands, and stress balls. Common objects such as rings, bracelets, pens, or small gemstones are also used as fidget tools. Fidgeting activities like doodling, stroking one’s chin, drumming one’s fingers, shuffling one’s legs, playing with one’s shirt sleeves, twirling one’s hair, or folding one’s hands can also serve to improve concentration. The prevailing wisdom is that concentration on something else can be enhanced when these activities become repetitive and mindless.
There is a variety of research that demonstrates how fidgeting (or higher motor activity) can improve working-memory skills and executive functions in general, improve attention, and reduce inhibition. In his book Spark, Jon Ratey presents compelling evidence supporting the theory that vigorous and/or complex body movements improve attention and learning. A variety of studies indicate a relationship between the intensity of movement and better self-control and attention and that fidgeting improves problem-solving skills in kids with ADHD. Other research has shown that doodling, squeezing a stress ball, and using “fidget widgets” can improve skills like attention, recall, productivity, and creativity. A preference for movement has been cited as the rationale for why kids with ADHD learn more when they are not forced to sit still. Basically, letting kids with ADHD move around and fidget helps them to learn.
Has anyone actually studied the spinner?
The cult of the fidget spinner would have us believe that these tools will help kids, particularly kids with ADHD, improve attention and learning. This understanding is based largely upon the above cited research. But I have drawn the conclusion that fidget spinners do not actually promote the type of fidgeting that is beneficial for kids with ADHD.
I asked several of my elementary and middle school age patients whether fidget spinners promote focus and the answer was a resounding “NO!” According to these kids, and in my own experience, fidget spinners are helpful for stress reduction but tend to be a detriment to concentration in a work setting. A large part of focus involves ignoring distractions, both external and internal, and fidget spinners require mindful visual attention by the user and often draw the attention of others in the same space. As for the science behind fidget spinners, Mark Rapport, whose research on movement and focus has often been cited as justification for the use of fidget spinners, notes that these toys are more likely to serve as a distraction than a benefit for individuals with ADHD.
While there seems to be research-based and anecdotal evidence that fidget spinners can be useful for stress management, creativity, and mindfulness, there is very little to support the use of fidget spinners for enhancing concentration and productivity in the classroom. But if your child loves to play with their fidget spinners and it keeps them content while sitting in the car on a long drive or helps them calm down, then maybe fidget spinners really are helpful.
Featured image: Flickr user Joan Dragonfly