Schools ban fidget toys as classroom distraction

  • May. 4, 2017 12:30 a.m.

CHICAGO — The latest craze in classrooms and on playgrounds comes in the form of brightly colored, hand-held trinkets that spin, have buttons to push or otherwise keep hands occupied.

The aptly named fidgets are supposed to enhance concentration, reduce anxiety and stimulate learning. But some educators aren’t buying the spin. They say the toys have become a major distraction to teachers and students, and, in some cases, they’re being banned from classrooms.

The idea behind fidget devices — or what’s sometimes called fidget therapy — is that they enhance the senses to allow for better and longer concentration. There’s a variety of fidgets, but the type that’s become suddenly ubiquitous, sold at places like convenient stores, is a small, three-pronged metal and plastic device that spins on a center ball bearing. Another popular fidget is a tiny cube with buttons and levers to manipulate.

Advocates say fidget therapy has been particularly useful for children on the autism spectrum and those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, or otherwise have a harder time paying attention or sitting still.

Yet some school administrators have already soured on the trend.

“Frankly, we’ve found the fidgets were having the opposite effect of what they advertise,” said Kate Ellison, principal of Washington Elementary School in Evanston, Ill. “Kids are trading them or spinning them instead of writing.”

It took only a few days after teachers started noticing the toys before almost all of the older students had multiple devices, she said.

“All of the sudden, they’re everywhere,” she said. “It happened overnight.”

While some cost upward of $20, cheaper versions can be had for just a few bucks.

The staff recently made the decision to ban fidgets, and Ellison sent out a letter to parents, explaining the tools are a distraction or worse, because they’ve caused conflict among students.

“They’re treating them like they would treat a toy,” she said. “So we can’t have them in class or at recess.”

While Ellison acknowledged the benefits of fidgets and the philosophy behind them, she said the school has other tools for students who need so-called “manipulators,” like a squeeze ball, or a piece of Velcro or rubber band underneath their desk.

“This particular kind of toy has not been part of our repertoire of sensory tools,” she said.

Washington Elementary isn’t alone in its thinking. On social media and in published reports, word has spread of fidgets being banned in classrooms or entire schools, usually with exceptions made for children with special needs.

Janelle Feylo of Downers Grove, Ill., was pleased to see a letter from her principal at Prairieview School announcing such a ban. Feylo’s fourth-grade son had recently started asking for a fidget toy and brought home a homemade device given to him by a friend. That one was promptly lost in the laundry.

Eventually, the fidget was located, but Feylo confiscated it.

“I don’t think he needs it,” she said. “I don’t want him to get in trouble.”

Occupational therapists say fidgets do work if used correctly and not just as a toy.

“It’s this idea that … if (students are) inattentive, they could be disruptive or not learning,” said Sandra Schefkind, pediatric program manager at the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Those who tend to fidget, the theory goes, can channel the urge into the mindless manipulation of the device, thus freeing them to focus on the task at hand.

It’s the reason why people doodle during a class or a meeting, and why people need breaks to move around when sitting still for long periods, she said.

“Our brains can’t just focus on auditory and visual challenges,” said Kristie Koenig, an associate professor and chair of the department of occupational therapy at New York University. “It’s the same reason why recess helps.”

Koenig said educators have long included tools to enhance learning in classrooms, from stretching and water breaks to gum chewing during tests.

“You only have so much time to (spend sitting and listening or reading), then you get up to sharpen your pencil,” she said. And people naturally fidget by twirling hair or tapping a foot. Fidget devices are an extension of that, Koenig said.

While the concept isn’t new, Koenig said the bump in popularity could relate to greater inclusion of students with special needs as well as, like most contemporary trends, social media. But they’re not just for students with disabilities or learning difficulties, she said.

“They could help anyone,” she said. “An outright ban could be counterproductive to kids who need them.”

Still, Koenig acknowledges that when students use fidgets as toys or collectibles, their benefits may diminish. “We don’t want kids to use them as toys to distract.”

And even if some schools are banning them, the fidget trend is far from played out, said Laurie Kherani, owner of Learning Express Toys stores in Clarendon Hills, Countryside and Glenview, Ill.

“We sell through them quicker than we’re getting them in,” she said.

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