Facts for Families

Facts for Families

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Fidget Spinners: To Spin or Not to Spin?


By Cheri Burcham, Family Life Educator


If you have a school age child in your life, you've undoubtedly heard about or seen fidget spinners. They seem to be everywhere now…stores, online, schools, parks, recreation programs…anywhere kids congregate, there's bound to be a spinner. My Extension colleague Karla Belzer recently wrote about the pros and cons of these little gadgets in our Family Files Blog – http://web.extension.illinois.edu/hkmw/eb380/

A popular belief about the fidget spinner is that it helps kids keep their distracted brains focused, which has sparked interest in the attention span of children in modern times. While there is little research regarding if children are less focused today than in the past, emerging research suggests that attention span has decreased as multitasking has increased in the digital age. With the emergence of the fidget spinner craze, teachers were reporting that the devices were distracting not only the student using the device, but also other students in the classroom. As children were "playing" with the device rather than using them for restorative reasons, schools and other programs banned the devices and those who could therapeutically benefit from them have to find alternatives.

Currently, there is little specific research on fidget spinners; however, there is a vast body of knowledge on attention span, how the brain stays focused, and what type of activities benefit individuals with ADHD. Recent research has demonstrated that gross motor movement – moving the arms, legs, and large parts of the body - helps children with ADHD focus on tasks. In one study, children with ADHD who participated in a gross motor activity performed better on working memory tasks than those who sat still. During the study, the children who were moving their whole bodies, arms, and legs were found to have increased activity in areas of the brain that are responsible for attention. As fidget spinners work on fine motor movement – movements of the fingers and small parts of the body – it is thought that they are not as beneficial at focusing the brain as gross motor movement activities. Even so, clinical therapists have long used devices similar to spinners to help children and adults manage sensory processing issues.

With the recent popularity of fidget spinners, parents may find themselves questioning why they should or shouldn't provide their child with a spinner. The long and the short of it is that there is no simple answer. If you are considering giving your child a spinner, it's important to assess if your child needs a device to keep his or her hands busy. For some children, fidgeting with their hands is way to process sensory experiences, deal with anxiety, or even relieve boredom. If your child is in need of a fidgeting device for therapeutic reasons, consider how distracting the device is to both your child and to others. Choose a device that is discreet so not to be distracting to others. Check with your school to ensure that the device you choose is not a banned device. If your child has no therapeutic need for a fidget device, educate him or her on why some children need the devices and how the devices help them. While the devices are fun to play with and are cool to experience, point out how these "toys" are "tools" for others. Encourage your child to consider how they use their spinner - is it a toy or is it a tool? Engage in conversation that challenges your child's need for the device. This is a great opportunity to build awareness and understanding of others.

According to research, there are alternative ways to keep kids focused and less distracted. Consider these ideas in improving your child's focus and attention: If your child is having difficulty focusing on a task, offer a brain break. Brain breaks are short mental breaks that last no more than five minutes and incorporate physical activity to help the child refocus their attention. Some teachers are implementing brain breaks into their daily instruction. Parents can implement brain breaks at home whenever they notice their child having difficulty concentrating on a task at hand. Some ideas for brain breaks include:

  • Put on your favorite music and have a 3-5 minute dance party.
  • Play "Follow the Leader."
  • Play or sing "movement songs" like YMCA or Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes
  • Play brain break creativity and coordination games.

Have you ever told your child to pay attention? Have you ever taught your child how to pay attention? Practicing mindfulness may be the answer. The act of mindfulness is paying attention on purpose as well as an awareness of the present moment. In practicing mindfulness skills, children learn to soothe and calm themselves and improve their ability to pay attention to what is going on around them. You can cultivate mindfulness in your child by establishing a mindfulness practice in your home, practicing mindful breathing, and playing mindful games. The Greater Good and Mrs. Mindfulness have some great resources to get you started. Also, as adults have difficulty focusing on multiple things at once, children do as well. When working on improving focus, attempt to eliminate all distractions that get in the way of concentration. Turn off the T.V. Put the smartphone away. Pay attention to the background noise that your child is hearing and experiencing. Children and adults focus better when there are fewer distractions.

Whether you see fidget spinners as a therapeutic tool or the trendy toy of the moment, remember it is a fad of the minute and soon, another one will pop up to take its place.

For more information on this topic or other family life-related topics, contact Cheri Burcham at University of Illinois Extension at 217-543-3755 or at cburcham@illinois.edu For more information on University of Illinois Unit 19 programming and to read more helpful articles, visit our website at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/index.html or call us at (217)345-7034. Also visit the Family Files Blog at http://web.extension.illinois.edu/hkmw/eb380/

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