Spinners: Are They Spinning Out of Control?

What is a spinner?  For the uninitiated, a “spinner” is touted as a stress relieving toy, acclaimed for its ability to calm those who fidget, with an outlet that will allow for improved focus and concentration.  The toy itself is quite simply a ball bearing inserted in the center of a flat, shaped, piece of plastic, metal, or other material, allowing the user to place it between their fingers and spin freely.  At first glance, this obsession sweeping the nation, both for adults and children, is innocent and innocuous.  But if we look more closely, specifically in classrooms in schools the world around, things are not as innocent as they seem.  While some believe they work well, the reality is, as with everything, that things may not be so rosy after all.  So, before you go out and buy your child a spinner so they can fit in and not be left behind, here is a quick list of pros and cons for you to consider:

Pros:

1-    The spinner DOES work.  It helps to relieve nervous energy otherwise expressed in disruptive habits such as tapping hands, feet, pens and pencils.  It also helps eliminate tics such as nail biting, skin picking, and hair pulling.

2-    In the proper environment (i.e. therapist/counselor’s office), the spinner assists clients in expelling nervous energy when discussing difficult topics including past trauma, disclosure of abuse, and any other hard to discuss adverse events.  It is amazing how much more children AND adults are both willing to discuss when they have something, such as a spinner, to fidget with.  This benefit can expand to the classroom, where a student can focus better on the lesson with a quiet outlet for that energy, when used appropriately.

3-    The spinner is small, fits in a pocket, and most are silent.  If the spinner is used appropriately, it is usually not a distraction to others.

4-    There could be some benefit to those with sensorimotor/tactile needs, but this is yet to be proven in any meaningful or evidence based studies.

Cons:

1-    The majority of children have no need for these toys whatsoever; instead, they want them.  As they have caught on, every child does not want to be left out from the craze.  This opens the door for, yet, another way to tease/harass/bully. 

2-    As with all fads, they are a HUGE distraction in the school as a whole, and in individual classrooms.  Students are selling them as a side business in the halls and in classrooms throughout instructional time.  Students are disassembling and trading out colored components with each other instead of doing school work.  Pieces fall off (they loosen up when taken apart) and while spinning; bearings will fly off, sometimes across the room, disrupting the entire class, or worse, physically striking another student.  Some of them do make noise while they spin, and at times, some students hit the desk or drop them all together. 

3-    For the majority of students who don’t require such a device, even when working properly and quietly engaging in the spinning activity, students are more focused on the look and feel of the spinning, including the speed with which they can spin and duration of the spin, so much so that they are wholly unfocused on the lesson and teacher- the OPPOSITE of what you are promised with your spinner purchase. 

4-    Students misplace, lose, or have spinners stolen constantly which, in addition to the increased bullying, adds to increase in discipline and time out of class related to complaints and trips to the lost and found (which nothing ever makes it to anyway).

The bottom line is simple.  Spinners are a toy and there is no authentic research to prove advertising claims.  That is not to say that they are not helpful; instead, that they are best utilized in specific places, with a rules put in place to govern use.  Should you decide to buy your child a spinner, they are best left at home during the school day, or kept away just like cellphones and gaming devices (many schools will take them away if being used inappropriately, requiring a trip to the school to pick it up). 

If you think your child can benefit from the use of a spinner, the place to start is with a phone call to teachers and the guidance office in order to discuss why you feel like your child can benefit, and to explore with the educators the potential causes of poor focus and attention, as well as other solutions, including a possible 504 plan or IEP update, which officially provide additional school-based support for your child.  Often, as a school social worker, it is my experience that there are many routes to improvement and none of them start with a spinner, although no one ever said it can’t include a spinner, if deemed necessary and used appropriately.

Written by: Justin S. Linefsky, LCSW, CAADC