Science, Now + Beyond

Do fidget spinners even help people out?

The toys have been around for a long time. There's a reason for that.

We all know kids who can’t seem to just sit down. It can be frustrating. Especially when it’s time to eat or sleep or learn or go to the movies. But often times, that child is just as frustrated.

These same children, if their inability to focus is left unaddressed, are more likely to face trouble in school and in the workplace. They may always be putting in extra effort to focus, only to absorb a fraction of what everyone else is absorbing. In fact, due to recent rises in ADHD and anxiety among children, this is something many children are experiencing.

The world today is more overstimulating for kids than it ever has been. Despite this, most children with focus issues are seen as badly behaved and scolded. Their own potential struggles to remain focused and please their parents and teachers are going unnoticed. They may want to be successful, but they simply don’t know how.

I myself have anxiety and experience periods of time during which I desperately need to keep my hands busy and bring myself out of my thoughts, back into the physical world (a process known as grounding). I have left social gatherings just to be alone for a moment and breathe; I have even left and gone home. So, what can we do to help either kids or adults that are silently suffering from anxiety or ADHD? We can start by understanding the purpose of fidgeting.

Why do some of us fidget while we work in the first place?

According to Fidget To Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies For Living With ADHD: “If something we are engaged in is not interesting enough to sustain our focus, the additional sensory-motor input that is mildly stimulating, interesting, or entertaining allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating.”

In other words, when part of our brain becomes bored, fidgeting distracts part of the brain and keeps it busy. This allows the other parts of our brain to focus on whatever we are doing. Many of us have probably experienced this phenomenon while “doodling” during one of our classes in school or flipping a pen around with our fingers.

In a study published in 2014 by the NIH’s US National Library of Medicine (PMC), it was found that more intense physical activity is associated with better cognitive control performance in ADHD. Children with ADHD in particular “generated higher intensity movements in their correct trails compared to their error trials,” suggesting that they were moving around more to focus and perform better on the task. Ultimately, fidgeting, although it seems like an indicator that we are distracted, has a very specific purpose: to help us pay attention.

So, what are fidget toys?

Fidget toys are tools that are designed to help with focus in a multitude of ways. There are many different kinds of fidgets, to help different types of people focus or stay calm. And yes, both children and adults can and do benefit from fidget technology.

Who are fidget toys specifically designed for?

Fidget toys were originally made for anyone that has sensory needs or focus issues, especially children on the spectrum, children with anxiety, and children with ADHD. Special educators have been familiar with fidget toys for a long time. More recently, adults have begun to take an interest in fidgets. In fact, there have been fidgets produced more recently that were made with the intention of being marketable to adults, such as the fidget cube.

So, do fidget toys work?

The short answer is yes. 

For children and individuals with sensory needs, like many of those who are on the spectrum, fidget toys can be very effective. The term “sensory need” refers to individuals who have a higher threshold when it comes to neurological input. Fidget toys are designed to provide the user with the adequate amount of sensory input in a less distracting way. In other words, fidget toys target the tactile system; they help us focus on the toy instead of all the other distractions in the room, helping us pay attention to the task at hand.

Unfortunately, fidget toys are not a universal cure-all for focus issues or anxiety. For many individuals, fidget toys only work if the toy is the right one – if it addresses their particular sensory need, for example. In addition to this, many children find themselves even further distracted by fidget toys.

Some children find themselves focusing on the fidget toy so that it proves to fully distract them from the task at hand. Even more, many children seem to perceive fidget toys to be just toys and use them to play games with their friends. This defeats the purpose (and is the reason fidget spinners have been banned in many schools).

Ultimately, studies have shown that fidgeting is often an indication of a larger problem. Fidget toys are not really toys, they are tools used to fight the symptoms of anxiety, ADHD, high sensory needs and more in both children and adults. But like any tool, it must be used thoughtfully and correctly in order to be of any benefit.

And honestly, if so many of us are going to buy and use these things, it can’t hurt to educate ourselves on the aforementioned disorders. Let’s not use tools designed for particular groups while continuing to remain ignorant regarding those groups.

If anything, the beauty of fidget toys being welcomed by all people is that it gives everyone a chance to learn more about individuals who may have struggles different from their own.

Either that, or it shows us that many of us share similar struggles when we look across a classroom and see another kid rolling a spinner in his hand under his desk during a test.