Toys or tools?

Fidget spinners in the classroom

If you want to distract children and disrupt their memory, give them a fidget spinner.

Flicking the trend of fidget spinners was undoubtedly welcomed by most teachers across Australia, as an increasing number of schools banned the toys from their classrooms. But what has made this gadget different to the myriad of other fads that teachers have come across has been a public perception that fidget spinners could help students with attentional disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to focus on their school work. How can a teacher confiscate these distracting toys if students and their parents claim such benefits? IE Journalist Sara El Sayed looks at whether fidget spinners have educational value.

What does the evidence say?

While the online debate over whether or not children should be allowed to play with their fidget spinners in the classroom continues, experts are doubtful of the claimed benefits.

Professor Stephen Houghton of the University of Western Australia said that, as of now, there is no empirical evidence to show fidget spinners assist the learning of children with ADHD.

“Fidget spinners are simply a fad for which there is no scientific evidence of any kind to support the alleged learning benefits,” Professor Houghton said.

“One of the defining characteristics of ADHD is a deficit in working memory and switching attention.

“You can imagine the children having to work on a set task in a classroom, and then turning to flick the fidget spinner on their finger – what they’re doing is switching their attention from one point to another, and that’s one of the things children with ADHD have trouble managing.

“If you want to distract children and disrupt their memory, give them a fidget spinner.”

Professor Houghton said that the ability for a fidget spinner to distract is not confined to the student using it.

“If a teacher has to compete for the attention of five students playing with fidget spinners, how well are they able to attend to the 20 other children in the classroom?

“These gadgets make it more difficult for teachers to do their jobs,” Professor Houghton said.

If not fidget spinners – what helps to support students with ADHD?

First and foremost, teachers’ current workloads need to be taken into consideration when planning activities to support children with learning difficulties, and schools should provide adequate time and resources to teachers if they are expected to address these issues effectively.

Professor Houghton suggested that a different approach needs to be taken to support children with ADHD.

“A common argument is that kids with ADHD should have more time for exams, but one of the central deficits in ADHD is a sense of time. If someone has a deficit in a sense of time, giving them more time to complete a task is counterintuitive. We need to shift the way ADHD support is approached.

“What is needed is a level playing field in the way materials are presented.

“We shouldn’t be telling children to bring their fidget spinners as learning aids, what is needed is school support to produce materials that are visual, engaging, and that adequately address learning difficulties.

“A commonly overlooked example is the actual layout of exams.

“It’s not good for a child with ADHD or a learning disability to have some written information on one page and then have to turn to another page to answer the question that is related to the information. This forces ‘switching attention’ behaviour and working memory doesn’t allow them to retain that information.

“Forget fidget spinners – it’s about actually finding something that allows kids to focus.”

Professor Houghton suggested that if schools allowed children with ADHD to play particular video games before attending class, it would actually be more beneficial than allowing them to play with fidget spinners.

He referred to his study ADHD Outside the Laboratory: Boys’ Executive Function Performance on Tasks in Videogame Play and on a Visit to the Zoo which observed, in part, how children with ADHD interacted with computer games.

“The study saw children engage with adventure type computer games, such as the popular video game Crash Bandicoot.

“A big focus in the study of children with ADHD is their ability to deploy executive functions: their ability to comprehend; their ability to plan; their ability to organise their behaviour and sequence it in the correct order over time; and their ability to hypothesise.

“What this particular study showed was that adventure type games actually allowed these executive functions to be deployed.

“Some schools in Australia have taken on this approach and have let the students with ADHD play these games for 10 minutes before they go to class, and this has proven them to be beneficial to kids,” Professor Houghton said.

Until empirical evidence exists to show fidget spinners are helpful in the classroom, teachers should not allow them in the learning environment if they are finding them distracting to students or themselves.

Moreton Bay Boys College in Brisbane took the initiative to ban fidget spinners in the classroom, but allowed their students to play with them during breaks.

Head of Secondary Jason Day said teachers were finding the toys very distracting in the classroom.

“The fidget spinner trend was like any fad – once it came we were just waiting for it to go.

“Overall, teachers are very happy with the decision to ban fidget spinners in the classroom,” Mr Day said.

Luckily, to the delight of frustrated teachers, the fidget spinner’s temporary ‘trend’ status should inevitably lead to its extinction.