New Brunswick

All the rage: Are spinner toys a useful concentration tool or bad distraction?

Schools are trying to decide whether spinner toys are good or bad additions to the classroom.

Hot new toy could be good for some, not for others

Riley Harvey's mother Christina says the spinners are easier on her nerves than other hot toys her son has brought home. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

A new toy that's all the rage has some New Brunswick schools trying to juggle its utility for boosting concentration and its power to distract.

This week, Rothesay Park Middle School introduced The Fidget Rules for students who like to fiddle and gyrate the plastic toy hand spinners while sitting in class.

Quispamsis Middle School student 12-year-old Riley Harvey says all his classmates have Fidget spinners and some have been getting into trouble lately for waving them around.

He said an instructor seized seven in one day.

Fidgets in classrooms

5 years ago
Duration 0:45
Endeavours store owner muses on the popularity of the fidget devices for high-energy or anxious kids.

His mother, Christina, said she's just grateful that this latest trend is quieter than the bottle-flipping craze, where kids would toss partly filled water bottles and make them land in precarious places, often with a noise that would grind on parent's nerves.

"I'm glad that's over," she said.

Big demand

The toys are being described as addictive and a massive retail hit.

"We had no idea they would be this popular," said Luke Randall, owner of the ThinkPlay toy store in Fredericton, which sells them for around $11. "This thing has taken off."

Randall says the spinners contain ball bearings that keep the device spinning smoothly, an action that makes them appealing to kids and grownups.

"It gives you something to do and a way to release that nervous energy," he said. "We see people buying these for kids with autism. We see them being bought for kids to help them focus in the classroom. And it's been teachers wanting to buy them for the classroom."

12-year-old Riley Harvey says all his classmates in Quispamsis have one of the new spinner toys. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

The Dollar Store in Quispamsis got a shipment Tuesday around noon and was nearly sold out three hours later.

"I wish I had thousands for all the kids coming in," said store manager Linda Earle.

 The toys are causing some distraction in the classroom, said Anglophone South superintendent Zoe Watson.

I wish I had thousands for all the kids coming in.- Store manager Linda Earle

"I know some teachers are asking the students to deposit them at the door when they come into the class," she wrote in an email.

"Some schools have indicated that they have sent some reminders home and have reviewed these with students."

Schools do recognize that some children need to be moving or have something in their hands to help them concentrate, said Watson.

That's why the students have access to stationary bikes, wobble chairs and hokki chairs, she said.

Can be calming

Stuart Shanker, professor emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University, has written a book about self-regulating behaviour.

His 15-year-old son has a fidget.

"I watch my kid doing it and I can see sometimes where for some kids this would be calming. I can also see how easily this could become a distraction for different kids or at the wrong time," he said.

Luke Randall of the Fredericton store ThinkPlay says he had no idea how popular spinners would be. (Edwin Hunter/CBC)

He also cautioned that for as many children who find the spinner soothing, an equal number may become agitated or more wound up.

"There's no one size fits all," he said.

Tension and anxiety are huge nervous system costs.- Stuart Shanker, York University

"The teacher needs to have an understanding of what are the signs that this is calming one child. What are the signs that it is having an opposite effect on another child." 

At the very least, the toys' phenomenal success is drawing attention to issues around stress and tension among students and what they can do to teach themselves to relieve that stress and increase their ability to focus, he said.

"Tension and anxiety are huge nervous system costs," said Shanker.

"So the reason why these things work is that they are reducing the amount of energy being spent on the tension and that energy is now available to be used on a positive stress and the positive stress is learning."


Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.