It’s been around five years since the fidget spinner craze reached its peak. It appeared in classrooms, YouTube videos and even mobile games. Fidget toys have been popular for a long time. While the fidget spinner seems to have lost its spot as the fan favorite, it gave online personalities a new niche to create content in and opened a conversation about the place of sensory toys in schools, helping bring about further acceptance of children with neurobehavioral disorders, anxiety and more.

Pop-It sales went through the roof after a video of a capuchin monkey playing with one went viral. (Photo: Getty Images)

Fidget toys (also known as fidgets) are small handheld toys that provide a purposeless motor activity that can be done without paying attention. They usually only have one simple function (with the exception of the fidget cube, which has six different functions) that often involves clicking, pushing with a finger or squeezing. Though their popularity skyrocketed with the fidget spinner fad of 2017, it’s worth noting that fidget toys as a concept are not entirely new. During the Ming Dynasty in China, some people used Baoding balls. These balls were usually hollow with a smaller ball inside that would ring a chime when it hit the outer shell. They were mainly used for resistance training, but they have been said to work similarly to the Western stress ball. Various “worry toys,” including stones, dolls and beads, have been used for centuries in various cultures around the world.

While different fidget toys have different functions, they share the same benefits. Helping the user exert energy onto something tactile, they make great stress relievers. Fidgets also improve coordination and fine motor skills and can aid in strengthening small muscles in the hand. As for their effects on learning, their value cannot go unnoticed. Research has shown a dramatic increase in academic scores among students who use fidget toys, and this effect was more than doubled among students diagnosed with ADHD. “Research indicates that most children learn better when their hands are active,” says a blog post from the Flushing Hospital Medical Center. “And funneling expandable energy in this manner allows them to better focus on what they are trying to learn.” 

Still, the role of these toys has been highly debated within school administrations. In many districts, this has resulted in a total ban on fidget toys in some schools, who reported the items were actually distracting their students. These bans sparked a national conversation about the place of sensory toys in the classroom. As many pointed out, these toys are known to help those with ADHD, anxiety and autism, so taking away these tools is not beneficial. “They could help anyone,” Kristie Koenig, an associate professor and chair of the department of occupational therapy at New York University. “An outright ban could be counterproductive to kids who need them.” Others worried about the distraction the toys would make to other students. “Every teacher should have the ability to choose whether to ban or pocket spinners based on those kids, in that class, at that time- period,” commented a user under an article discussing these bans.

As time goes on, fidget toy trends will come and go. Today, arguably the most popular fidget is the Pop It, a silicone toy similar to Bubble Wrap. It was invented in 1975 by Theo and Ora Coster, and has sparked various spin offs (or rip offs, depending on who you ask) of varying shapes and colors. Pop Its can now be found in gas stations, online stores, and on social media platforms like TikTok. Fidget toys are not a new concept, but their significance changes with each generation they’re used by. Maybe in ten years, the fidget spinner will make a comeback!

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