Fidget Spinners: Tools or Toys?

fidget spinner spinning
fidget spinner spinning

Andrew Bonini was stuck inside at school on a sweltering day. To get his mind off the heat, the eighth grader took out his fidget spinner — a flat, palm-sized gadget with three arms that spins on a ball bearing. The Connecticut teen flicked it and watched it spin around and around. It whirred quietly.

fidget spinner
fidget spinner

Andrew is 14. His younger sisters each have their own fidget spinners. Twelve-year-old Ava is teaching herself a trick. “I’ll be holding it and spinning it on my pointer finger, then I try to balance it on my middle finger while it’s spinning.” Allie, who’s nine, has been trying to balance hers on her nose as it spins. “It’s not easy,” she notes.

Silly tricks aside, all three siblings feel their spinners are more than mere toys. Andrew thinks the gadget helps him reduce stress and boredom. Allie tends to take hers out when she’s alone in her bedroom and feeling upset or anxious. “If I can play with it for five minutes, it helps me not be as worried,” she says.

The Bonini kids are part of the fidget spinner craze that is sweeping across the United States and other parts of the world. People of all ages are spinning an array of devices that come in all sorts of shapes and colors. The spinners follow a long line of toy fads, from hula hoops to Pokémon cards and silly bands.

But fidget spinners may be more than just a toy. Some websites that sell them have made sweeping health claims. They say the spinners can help relieve stress, anxiety or even the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the same time, some schools have banned the gadgets for being too distracting. So, are spinners annoying toys or therapeutic tools? It turns out, they can be both.

Story continues below video.

Spinner inspiration

Years before the current spinner craze took off, inventor Catherine Hettinger of Winter Park, Fla., was going through a difficult summer. She has a disorder called myasthenia gravis. In this condition, instructions from the brain can fail to make it to the muscles. People like Hettinger can therefore have trouble moving their arms and hands. Her daughter, Sara, was seven at the time. “I couldn’t pick up my daughter’s toys and couldn’t play with her,” the woman recalls.

Whenever Hettinger hears of a problem, though, no matter how large or small, she immediately starts imagining devices to fix it. She and her daughter worked together to design and build something they could play with together. “We toyed with all kinds of kitchen stuff and other household objects. I could crumple up newspaper and use tape to think in three dimensions,” she says.

spinning toy
Catherine Hettinger’s granddaughter Chloe plays with a classic fidget spinner. “Once people use it they love it,” says Hettinger.

The result of all that tinkering was a small plastic disc that could be spun on the tip of a finger. In 1993, Hettinger filed for a patent on the spinning toy and started selling it at craft fairs. (A patent gives a person or company exclusive rights to make, sell or use an invention.) She also pitched the device to toy companies. Before a meeting with the vice president and lead designer of one company, Hettinger found herself playing with the spinner. She says, “It helped to calm me down.”

Unfortunately, none of the companies decided to produce her toy. And a patent doesn’t last forever. Hettinger eventually let hers lapse. Though she continued to sell the spinners at craft fairs and online, the idea of a finger spinner no longer belonged to her alone. Yet she’s thrilled that a variation on her idea has now become so popular.

The fidget spinners that most people have now don’t look much like Hettinger’s original. Hers looked a bit like a sun hat or a flying saucer that would balance atop a fingertip. Most of today’s spinners have three arms and spin for a longer time on tiny ball bearings. People have gotten very creative with new sizes and shapes for these spinners.

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

As content editor, I get to do what I love everyday. Tweet, share and promote the best content our tools find on a daily basis.

I have a crazy passion for #music, #celebrity #news & #fashion! I'm always out and about on Twitter.
Sasha Harriet

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