Tool or toy? This is the question middle school teachers have been asking each other as they’ve noticed their classes filling up with tiny, hand-held toys that spin, click and whoosh.
Known as fidget toys, the gadgets were originally intended as tools to help children with attention deficit disorders, including ADHD. Research shows that having something in their hands to fidget with can provide kids with ADHD a sensory input that actually improves their focus and, as a result, helps them learn better in the classroom. The devices have become so popular, though, that students without attention disorders have begun bringing them to class, where they click, flick and spin them while the teacher presents the lesson. Whether kids get them as gifts from friends (fidget toys are the new hot birthday present) or from their well-meaning parents who believe the toys will help them focus, fidget toys are suddenly rampant in classrooms.
The problem is, rather than improving learning, some teachers are saying that they're causing major disruptions. “Kids are playing with them when they should be listening,” says Lisa Johnson,* a grade six teacher from Ottawa. “They’re passing them around to play with, they’re showing them to each other, they’re taking them apart and trying to put them back together again in the middle of a lesson."
One popular toy, a two-inch vinyl device called the Fidget Cube, made headlines earlier this year as one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever. Having attracted $6 million in financing, the device is marketed for home, work and school to allow users to “fidget in style.” More confounding for teachers though, is the fidget spinner, a three-ringed, pocket-size toy designed to spin atop desks or flat surfaces. “They’re so visually stimulating that they’re a huge distraction for anybody sitting around the kid,” Johnson says.
The devices have drawn the ire of teachers all over the world. One U.K. educator calls them “the bane of my life” in a recent pleading blog post. Another from New York City issued a plea to parents, writing that fidget toys “may have been invented with the best of intentions, but they are ruining my life, and possibly your child’s.”
While some teachers have sent letters home banning the spinners, others have taken to confiscating them. But that doesn’t always go smoothly. “When I tell them to put the toys away, they claim it is a fidget toy and that they need them,” says Rebecca Collins,* a grade six teacher in Barrie, Ont., who regularly has five or six students with the spinners in class. “I tell them that once an occupational therapist or a doctor prescribes the toy, then I will allow it. Right now it’s just a toy they’re taking advantage of,” she says. “It’s so frustrating.”
Parents buying and sending the toys to school in hopes they will help their children focus are actually causing more harm than good, says Doron Almagor, a Toronto-based psychiatrist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and related issues, and chair of the Canadian ADHD Resource Alliance. “All this will do is cause kids to be distracted in class by their fidget toys. They are too stimulating in and of themselves, which is why I think they’re so popular,” he says. “It’s not different than if you allowed them to bring a Nintendo DS into the class. I can’t imagine that playing with very distracting toys is going to help a non-ADHD kid with their focusing.”
Parents who are concerned that their child might have an attention-related disorder should have a professional assessment done, Amagor says. If a disorder is diagnosed, an occupational therapist can recommend therapeutic tools designed to address the child’s specific needs. The therapists work with families to figure out what will give the child the sensory input they need—it might be a bouncy seat, or tape or Velcro to play with under the desk.“It’s not as though we just say, ‘Go get this toy and that will help your ADHD,’” he says.
*Names have been changed.