Alicia Eden, BOccThy
They’ve been available online for years, and locally for the past couple of months. Fidget spinners have been the latest craze with kids, surpassing the return of Pokemon cards. They’re advertised as both a fun toy and a tool to help people with their concentration. A lot of people have weighed in on this debate, saying that the spinners are the exact opposite of what they suggest, and kids are more distracted by them than anything else. Some schools have gone as far as to ban them, and others are continuing to follow suit. So what’s our OT perspective?
The theory behind the fidget spinner is Sensory Processing – the way the brain interprets and organises the information it gathers from the senses. Everybody receives a steady stream of sensory information, which is passed to the brain for processing, and a behavioural output is generated. There are a total of 7 senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, movement/body awareness and balance.
This process, however, is not standardised for everyone. Everyone’s brain is different, therefore so is what the brain ‘thinks’ about sensory input, and how it makes your body respond. This means, that people can have different ‘preferences’ for sensory input. Some may actively seek out sensory input (e.g. touching things, moving around, tapping a pen on the table), avoid sensory input (e.g. not going to places they know are noisy, refuse to touch ‘yucky’ things), or a mixture of both depending what the input is. The aim is to provide the right level of sensory information for the individual, in order to produce the desired response, and engage in our daily activities.
This is where the fidget spinner comes in. The spinner aims to fill a person’s preferences for sensory input, hence allowing them to concentrate on what they need to do without being distracted by the need to seek out more sensory input in order to feel calm. Finger fidgets have been used as a part of an OT’s toolbox for a long time, and have been successful with a lot of our little ones at TOTS. In saying this, due to everyone being different in their sensory preferences, they don’t work for everyone. For example, I like to fiddle with my pen. I have one of the ones that you can change the ink colour by pressing the different buttons and I probably drive people crazy by flicking it. Being able to move my fingers around and fiddle helps me concentrate. The fidget spinner, despite providing a great fiddle for my fingers, provides a visual stimulus that I find too distracting (and to be honest makes me a little car sick to watch). In the contrast, I have a client whom I give a fidget spinner while we play connect 4, and the visual stimulus calms him to a point that he can play with me.
So to answer the question, friend or foe, is a little less straightforward. Finding out a child’s sensory preferences can be hard, as they are a little less aware of how the input effects their behaviours, just due to the brain still developing. As adults, we need to help them by giving them options and seeing what their preferences are based on their reactions. If your child has a fidget spinner and cannot do anything else but play with it, maybe it doesn’t fit their needs and is more of a toy that can be pulled out at playtime. Trial and error is the best method to see what will help your child (or you!) be calm and concentrate. Consult an OT is you think that your child may benefit from some of the other ideas we have in our toolboxes!