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Fidget Spinners: Addictive Stress Relief for Kids Who Need to Move

Published in ChicagoNow, May 30, 2017

Fidget spinners have been banned by most schools, and rightfully so. If I were having a hard time staying focused, squeezing a koosh ball or chewing on a pencil might help. But watching a spinner and keeping it in motion would be a total distraction.

These spinners are basically toys that delight all kids, but they are advertised as great for children with ADD, ADHD, Anxiety, and Autism. I’m quite familiar with various products for children with these disorders, and fidget spinners are not really helpful in terms of maintaining attention at school. But once kids saw children with special needs using them in class, everyone had to have one. Aside from them being a fun new fad, the question is, what is the basic appeal?

I’m neither a pediatrician nor an occupational therapist. But being a mother of three kids, an early childhood educator for over 30 years, and the grandmother of eight gives me a bit of street cred. And what I see is a disturbing trend – kids need to fidget because they are not allowed to move enough these days.

Being a compulsive baby book person for all of my kids, I can share that they generally turned over by three months, sat alone by five months, crawled by six months, and walked by one year. None of this was remarkable. All of my friends’ kids followed similar patterns.

Our grandkids are another story. Turning over may happen at five to six months. Sitting alone happens closer to seven to eight months. Most of them don’t crawl until eight months, and some skip it altogether. Walking also typically happens a couple of months after their first birthday. We grandmothers have an unscientific theory: our grandbabies are not allowed to move enough.

First, they have to sleep on their backs now because of fear of SIDS. To keep them in this position, they are swaddled and stuffed into sleep sacks. This keeps them safe but also keeps them from exercising their arm and neck muscles. Add to that the vast number of contraptions for carrying our grandkids. When was the last time you saw a baby carried in her mother’s arms?

This is definitely a good time to become an occupational therapist. Many of our grandkids end up in OT to strengthen their muscles. So, with professional help or on their own, our grandkids become school kids. Surely, they get to move around now? Well, not as much as they should.

Under pressure to get the next generation of school children ready for college and career, recess has taken a backseat to rote learning. There is far too much sitting and far too little time to move. Kids want fidget spinners as a way to discharge pent up energy from too much sitting and too little time to run and play (AKA, recess).

Research by Anthony D. Pellegrini and Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler finds that classroom behavior and achievement improve when children have the opportunity for breaks in their academic learning in the form of unstructured free play. This finding is supported by numerous controlled experiments.

The benefits of recess include physical fitness, improved classroom behavior and attention, and the development of social competence including cooperation, conflict resolution, and perspective taking skills. Numerous studies support what adults know from their own work experience. Without breaks, the brain becomes less efficient. Ironically, when teachers devote long chunks of time to classroom instruction, academic achievement decreases.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Ironically, the children who need recess the most are also most likely to have it withheld as a punishment for not doing in-class or homework assignments or for being inattentive and fidgety. Children’s physical activity specialist and the author of eighteen books for teachers and parents, Rae Pica, agrees that withholding recess should not be used as a punishment because, in addition to the reasons given by the AAP, it doesn’t work.

“Experimental studies and anecdotal evidence point out that in any given school, it’s generally the same children who tend to have their recess withheld, indicating that the threat is ineffective…Demanding that children move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tells us we should be doing the opposite.”

There is no research supporting a link between keeping kids in the classroom for longer stretches of time and higher test scores. And there is much research supporting the benefits of recess for children’s learning, social-emotional development, and physical fitness. The majority of principals and teachers confirm that withholding recess as a punishment doesn’t work. What we know from numerous valid studies is that kids who get more recess are less fidgety and more attentive and focused. They learn important social skills and are more physically fit.

The fidget spinner fad came to school as a way for all children to discharge energy. I’m fine with banning them as long as they are replaced with the opportunity for all children to have time to play and recharge their batteries. Kids need a break from the expectations our educational system places on them. Let them play more and maybe they won’t need fidget spinners.


by Laurie Levy
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