Fidget spinners: Is this fad a friend or foe?

Fidget spinners are popular stress-relieving toy for school kids and adults. iStock.

It is the year of the fidget spinner — that pervasive, handheld toy making appearances in children’s backpacks, on playgrounds and in classrooms (or locked away in teacher’s desks) across the country.

The flat, disc-like toy with weighted paddles centered around a small, heavy center spool spins. And spins. And spins.

And that’s about it.

While most adults don’t get the appeal of the simple rotating toys, which sell for about $5-$10 each, kids go absolutely nuts for them.

Fidget spinners are a bit different from other passing fads and kids collectibles (like Beanie Babies). They began as a therapeutic tool for those with sensory issues, such as attention deficit disorder, attention deficit/hyperactive disorder and autism.

Lauren DuBois, a high school English teacher and director of engagement at New Way Academy, a K-12 Phoenix school that caters to students with learning differences such as ADD and dyslexia, allows her students full access to fidget spinners as needed.

“For many of our students, the ​mainstream expectation of ​sitting quietly at a desk for the duration of the school day does not work,” says DuBois.

NOTE: Concerns have been raised about lead in some fidget spinners, so ask questions about materials before purchasing a fidget.

“In our classrooms, we infuse as many opportunities to engage with the curriculum in multi-sensory ways as possible. However, there are still times when students are expected to attend or work independently,” she explains. “Fidgets help tremendously with this. By providing a sensory outlet that can be manipulated ​quietly, students are able to relax, refocus their minds and more readily process the information being given.”

For children without sensory challenges, the collectible appeal remains. Hundreds of different styles and colors can be found and sell everywhere from the corner convenience store to memorabilia, toy and video game shops. Their popularity has only grown from YouTube videos of fidget-spinning flips and tricks.

As for what kids actually look for in a fidget, experts say it’s all about the spin.

“The length of the spin is always a big thing for kids,” says Sue Engdahl, co-owner of Rocket Fizz, a Scottsdale soda and candy shop that hosts weekly “Fidget Fests” and sells numerous styles of fidgets. “So they want one that spins for awhile, and then there are some that are smoother than others, so they make less noise. They also want something that fits in the palm of their hand.”

“And if it wobbles?” adds Rocket Fizz co-owner Michael Paul. “It’s totally unacceptable.”

Because fidget spinners are often touted as stress-relieving tools that can help with mild bouts of nervousness, anxiety and focusing, many kids and even adults have turned to the gadgets for everyday use in the classroom and at the office. Like the repeated clicks of a pen during a big test or mindless doodling during a business meeting, fidgets are supposed to help one to relax and refocus. So why not just do one of those things?

“I think the obvious [answer] is that fidgets are meant to be virtually silent and can be manipulated under the desk,” says DuBois. “For adults, I think mindfulness is a great strategy, so if they needed a physical token to remind them to refocus their brain, I don’t see why they wouldn’t benefit as well.”

The fad isn’t welcomed at all Valley schools. Some have banned them altogether to prevent kids from getting distracted by fidgets and their less-popular cousin, the fidget cube — a small square device with buttons, levers, toggle switches and roller balls that can be pressed, pushed and manipulated.

“I myself and my school do not buy into it at all,” says Renee Jurado, a second-grade teacher at Nevitt Elementary School.

“We started seeing them around the end of last year, and at that point it was already acknowledged that these were toys, not coping mechanisms. And they were not allowed on campus,” she explained. “Then this year, all of a sudden, we have parents telling us that their kids need it because they are anxious or nervous or have issues. Parents did try to sell it, but for our principal and for a lot of the teachers, they became just another annoying thing that the kids got way too into, and they became a distraction rather than helping anyone to focus.”

There’s no telling exactly if or when the fidget spinner will begin to wane in popularity.

Until then, one thing is certain. Each parent, teacher and child will need to evaluate how best to utilize the twirling trinkets in and out of the classroom.

“I can understand why teachers would become frustrated with the sudden popularity of these devices and their use as toys in their classrooms,” says DuBois. “I hope that they will consider certain students who might benefit from them and teach proper usage rather than banning them altogether or suggest an alternative fidget for those students to use within their classrooms.”