With all the ink spilled about how children can barely tear themselves away from their glowing screens, it’s kind of surprising that this season’s biggest elementary-school fad involves nothing fancier than a couple of ounces of metal, plastic, and a few ball bearings.
Welcome to the springtime of the fidget spinner, the hot new “It” item, what some see as the palm-size scourge of schools and playgrounds across the country — and pretty much the only thing my first-grader is talking about these days. These devices don’t look like much: Think teeny-tiny lazy Susans (but with three prongs). To use, simply place the bearing between thumb and finger and, well, spin.
Every day after school my 7-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who currently does not have a fidget spinner, updates me on which of her classmates do. “Molly got one today,” she said, making sure to add, “She told me it was only $5 online.” The next day a boy named Neal announced his new spinner at school drop-off, pulling a brightly colored one from his sweatpants pocket. “Bella has two,” my daughter noted just this morning. When I ask what’s so amazing about them, she doesn’t have much for me: “I don’t know, they’re just so fun to play with.” So far, in the hopes of building much-needed patience in her one-click world, I haven’t gotten her one yet. But maybe I’ve waited long enough?
Much like last year’s water-bottle-flipping craze, fidget spinners are a cheap thrill (most cost $5 to $10) that kids are using to kill time and energy and to work the nerves of everyone around them. The drone and visual distraction from the spinners has gotten so inescapable that schools are slowly banning them from classrooms. When I mentioned fidget spinners to a friend who teaches middle-schoolers, she groaned before I could even finish my sentence — and explained they’re no longer allowed at her school.
Fidget spinners were invented by a Florida woman named Catherine Hettinger, who told Money that major toy-maker Hasbro passed when she approached the company with the product back in the ’90s. Back in 2005, Hettinger’s patent expired, enabling companies — including Hasbro — to sell fidget spinners independently from her and expand upon the design and varieties of the growing trend. Until recently, spinners were used mostly in a therapeutic context, since some experts think they can be helpful in focusing or calming kids who have ADHD or anxiety (there’s debate about how true this is). In some classrooms, teachers only allow them when they’ve been recommended by a therapist.
Perhaps their occupational-therapy origins are a big part of the lure. Kids often jockey to try out someone else’s crutches or pretend to need glasses — claiming a need to fidget could be another version of this kind of borrowing. Whatever it is, the popularity is hard to deny: As of now, fidget spinners — and their cousins, fidget cubes, which mostly just involve pressing useless little buttons in and out — are 47 of 50 of the top-selling toys on Amazon.
Parents, for their part, seem both befuddled and annoyed by them — or just desperate to get their hands on one. A thread on the Park Slope Parents message board asking where to buy them in the neighborhood garnered a deluge of quick responses. “Why they are popular is beyond me,” one parent chimed in, with another asking, “Can someone explain the origin of the craze?” Reportedly, toy stores are struggling to keep up with the demand, with some retailers marketing adult versions (with adult-size prices, at over $100 a pop).
After spending time mulling over them, I’ll admit it: The appeal of the fidget spinner is sort of universal. Ever click-click-click-clicked the top of a retractable pen in a meeting, or swung your keys around your index finger while biding your time in a line? Then you, too, have been entranced by repetitive, mindless, energy-expending motion at your fingertips. Plus, when you compare it to bouncing a tennis ball against the wall or biting your nails, a fidget spinner actually doesn’t seem half-bad.
By now, I think I have waited long enough (my unscientific opinion says we’re at peak spinner-mania this week). I’m not an aggravated teacher, and I’m willing to spend $5 on this maybe-irksome, seemingly wholesome device. As of today, there’s been no official ban on them communicated to parents at my daughter’s school. Perhaps it’s time to go forth and get a fidget spinner, to give my child a hit of guaranteed screen-free joy. After all, these are strange, trying times we’re living in. If self-soothing in Trump’s America means that kids and adults alike are turning to a fidget toy to get by, then let the world spin madly on.