Former Extension Educator, Family Life
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Friday, June 2, 2017
"Mom, can I please take my spinner into the meeting?"
"No, honey, there is no reason why you need to have that in the meeting."
"But, Mom, having it will help me concentrate better. It will help me pay attention."
So went the conversation with my 9-year old, begging me to let him bring the latest toy craze, his fidget spinner, into a club meeting that he attends. As I pressed him to give me details as to why he believed he needed to have the spinner while at the meeting, he came up with some pretty good reasons. I doodle anyway, Mom, how is this different? It helps me focus on what is being said. It won't distract me, I promise. Mom, it will help my brain focus (said with passion as he knows I am a brain health educator). He assured me that it wouldn't distract him or his friends, even promising that he would play with it under the table so "no one would know."
After several minutes of pleading and reasoning, I asked a crucial question, "Do you want to take the spinner in so your friends can see that you have one?" Sheepishly admitting that he wanted to show the spinner off and that he had no physical need to keep his hands occupied, his spinner stayed in the car as we went into the meeting.
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. We even saw a flower shop promoting their sale of fidget spinners on their signboard. (My son's reaction: "Fidget spinners? At a flower shop?") There are countless online video tutorials on how to make your own fidget spinner as well as tricks that can be done with a spinner. The spinners are small, ball bearing devices that spin and rotate between the fingers. When the spinner spins, it provides a visual, auditory, and tactile sensory experience that can be calming or soothing to some. To others, they are cool little devices that are easy to pack around and make one part of the "in" crowd.
As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and an advocate for people with disabilities for over 20 years, the first time I saw a spinner, I thought it was a great therapeutic device. Thinking back on my clinical career, I could identify dozens of individuals who experience ADHD, anxiety, or autism that would greatly benefit from such a device. As a practicing clinician, I had clients who regularly used "old school" fidget devices like sensory chains, sensory rings, and fidget cubes to name a few. For individuals who need this type of sensory input, they are wonderful devices that can be extremely helpful.
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.
To Spin or Not to Spin?
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 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.
Fidgeting devices are merely one way to focus attention. 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:
Give their brain a break
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. Click here to view.
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.
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.