Over the past year, fidget spinners have risen in popularity across the country.
If you’re not familiar with the devices, they are, typically, small, triangular plastic toys usually fitted with a ball bearing “spinner” in the middle that allows a user to twirl, spin and balance the toy in their hands.
But, according to New York Magazine, these types of devices might soon be outsold by a new “Squishie” toy, that works like a typical, squeezable stress ball.
"The squishies are like the next thing," said Adrienne Appell, director of strategic communications for the Toy Association, a not-for-profit trade group that represents businesses in the toy industry.
But, what is behind the meteoric rise of these types of fidget toys? And, is there any proof that these kinds of toys can actually help improve a child’s attention span?
"There are so many ways that kids are finding out about it now," she said. "It's very, very easy for a toy to go viral."
Through social media, she said, kids are able to learn about new and interesting toys quickly and, like many crazes, fidget spinners and these new squishies - available in all shapes and sizes - are relatively inexpensive and collectible.
"That's kind of the genesis of these things, It's kids speaking to kids," said Appell. "Social media plays a big part."
The benefit that these new fidget-type toys have, according to Roland Rotz, Ph.D., a licensed child and adult psychologist, director of the Lifespan Development Center in Carpinteria, Ca., who is an expert on ADD and has co-authored a book, Fidget to Focus, is that these toys can have a benefit in helping a child’s attention.
He explained that we live in a world where – unlike the past where books and radio required more imagination from an audience – entertainment is often fully realized for the audience.
“We have a world where a two-year-old can use an iPad,” said the 65-year-old Rotz. “The world is created for you now.”
This can cause children and young adults raised in this type of environment could be bored easily, he said. He said that telling children to sit still and pay attention just doesn’t work, but, by using these types fidget toys as background stimuli, a child can focus on tasks they might have otherwise found boring.
“We have a world where children use these fidget spinners and tools like these squishies, because they are told to sit down and pay attention,” he said. “We know that doesn’t work.”
In fact, in a 2006 study, sixth-grade students who were given stress balls – similar to the squishies – were found to improve students’ “attitude, attention, writing abilities, and peer interaction.”
Rotz compared the use of these types of fidget toys to being “on,” like when you’re on stage or if you perform well under pressure, these types of toys make your brain perform a repetitive action that allows the rest of your attention to be used elsewhere, allowing a user to focus better.
And, he said, these devices aren’t just for people diagnosed with AD/HD. Instead, he often finds that the parents of children he works with end up using the devices he keeps in his office more than children do.
“The rhythmic, repetitive actions… actually act as a stimulus that stimulates the production of dopamine in the brain,” said Rotz.
Dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and, Rotz said that by using these devices while students do a chore they don’t enjoy, they can focus more on the chore because the student’s brain is kept engaged.
The new challenge, he said, comes with ensuring these devices – which come in all sorts of colors, styles and shapes – don’t become a distraction to other students when a student is using one around them.
“If they allow [students] to stimulate their brain quietly, that’s one thing,” he said. “But, it has to be done respectfully. If it’s a distraction to anyone else, then it’s not as effective.”
Remember these? Retro toys that kept kids crazed
Hula-hoops: Invented in the late 1950s, this round toy allowed children to release their energy while focusing on the rhythmic motion of the hoop. There was also reportedly a crazy of using wooden a metal hoops in 14th-century England.
Stress Balls: The original stress ball came about in 1988, and contained electronics that caused a sound of glass breaking upon impact. Later, the balls were made of polyurethane foam.
Gak: This slimy stuff was created by the kid's network Nickelodeon and toy company Mattel in the 90s. Styles include Gak-in-the-Dark (which glowed in the dark), Smell My Gak (a scented version) and Floam, a sort of "bubble Gak."
Beanie Babies: These adorable, PVC-pellet filled animal bean bags also swept the 90s.