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Are your kids getting any health benefits from fidget spinners?

Fidget spinners are, if you hadn’t noticed, a big deal with the younger crowd these days. The handheld spinning toys are also been promoted for their therapeutic value in helping distracted children to pay attention and concentrate in the classroom. But education and health experts are divided over fidget spinners —are they tools to help restless kids or just another fad toy?

“We’ve just seen them coming in all of a sudden over the past few days,” says Karen Skelly, who teaches grades two and three at Arch Street Public School in Ottawa. “For the time being, at least, I’m taking them all away from everybody.”

Skelly says her classroom already has tools like wiggly balls, chair balls and weighted blankets that help some of her special needs students, and while she’s not against the idea of giving fidget spinners to select children who might benefit from the finger twirling gadgets, Skelly is waiting for the evidence to bear it out first. “It’s too new,” says Skelly. “We need to find out more about whether they’ll be a help to some or simply a toy that they’re going to play with.”

Seemingly out of nowhere, fidget spinners have become the “it” gadget, sprouting up at checkout counters and making their way into classrooms across the country. The toy’s origins are still obscure — sources originally attributed its invention to a chemical engineer in Orlando, Florida, a claim which has been subsequently refuted —yet there’s no doubting its popularity: various versions are currently occupying 17 of 20 spots on Amazon Canada’s list of top selling toys.

Sold as stress relievers and “great for fidgety hands,” fidget spinners may come across to parents as a quaint throwback to a pre-digital age when kids played with non-rechargeable oddities like pet rocks and Bolo bats, but it’s the added product tags saying that the toys are “good for relieving anxiety, ADHD and autism” that are at issue.

Unlike the evidence for the benefits of physical activity, we lack research on the benefits and/or risks of these toys for children with ADHD and other conditions such as autism…

Some, like Linda Pollock, a North Vancouver mother of two boys ages seven and eight, recently bought fidget spinners because one of her sons has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. She says she does notice a difference.

“It is something to occupy his hands because he never stops moving,” Pollock says. “I did find it does keep him busy. We went to two different dinners and having the fidget spinners kept both boys occupied for the entire dinner. It is nice to have something entertain them that that isn’t electronics.”

Research says that allowing kids to fidget can help them pay attention. Psychologist and author Sara Dimerman from Thornhill, Ontario, says that it’s the self-stimulating behaviour involved in fidget spinners as well as other distraction toys that brings the benefit. “Just being able to engage in a mindless activity like that allows [children] to keep their hands a bit busy and keep their minds on the teacher at the front of the classroom, for example,” Dimerman said, to CBC News.

And studies show that some kinds of physical activity can help with behaviour and cognitive processing in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition characterized by problems in attention and focus and impulsive behaviour, all of which can negatively impact the ability to thrive in a classroom setting.

A spinner might be good for one or two of my students but do nothing for the others, except distract them…

One study from Université de Montréal, for example, found that children with ADHD diagnoses who were given moderate to vigorous physical activity programs during school lunch hours (involving games and sports like basketball and soccer as well as exercise stations) scored better on behavioural measures for social, thought and attention problems.

But it’s the kind of activity involved that matters — and that’s where the fidget spinner fails, says John Cairney, professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto. “Unlike the evidence for the benefits of physical activity, we lack research on the benefits and/or risks of these toys for children with ADHD and other conditions such as autism,” says Cairney. “Yet, they are being marketed as beneficial. That is misleading.”

Cairney, who specializes in paediatric exercise science and adapted physical activity, is more in favour of technologies such as the pedal desk (which is just as the name implies) that actually get children’s bodies moving. “Instead of watching an object spin in your hand, I would rather children get up and run, jump, play,” says Cairney.

In fact, the ubiquity of the fidget spinner may be part of the problem, since the one-gadget-fits-all approach won’t work for children with conditions such as ADHD, which require personalized treatment. At Ontario schools like Skelly’s, for instance, students with special education needs receive independent education plans arrived at in consultation with parents, teachers and specialists.

“No two kids are the same,” says Skelly. “A spinner might be good for one or two of my students but do nothing for the others, except distract them.”

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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