If you haven’t seen one of these lately, you are:
- Not a parent
- Not a teacher
- Probably living under a rock, and even from there you can probably hear the whirring siren’s song of these Weapons of Mass Distraction
The above device is called a “fidget spinner” — a bit of a misnomer, if you ask me, because these toys are marketed as tools for reducing anxiety and improving attention — ie. as helpful devices to combat challenges imposed by ADHD, autism, and more, due to the fact that there is some research showing that fidgeting (and sensory stimuli) can be beneficial for some people. (In fact, I myself fidget, and had to learn productive ways to do so, starting in middle school when my teachers would say “Can you stop tapping the pen on the table?” Since then, my go-to is silently bouncing my knee/leg under the table. It gets the blood flowing — in fact, I do it more when I am either thinking hard or under a little bit of duress — and I think it helps! I have actually taught this method to my students as an effective “non-disruptive” form of fidgeting!)
But the reality is… there is no proof that “fidget spinners” actually meet the above need. They are a toy. “Some experts do believe that so-called ‘fidgets’ — silent, unimposing toys like squeezey balls or textured items like puddy — can provide some children with an outlet for brain stimulation to counteract hyperactivity in the classroom. But, says Anderson, ‘the distinction between those interventions and [fidget spinners] is that those interventions allow the child to move, but this particular intervention isn’t necessarily letting the child get their wiggles out, but rather play with a toy.'”
So, long story short: fidget spinners aren’t eliminating distractions and increasing focus on learning — they are doing the opposite. When my students say to me “You know what tricks I can do with a spinner?” my response is “My trick beats all of those… I can make it disappear!”
A Positive Spin…
However, I know a good craze when I see one (and nowhere are trends more pervasive and addictive than they are during the adolescent / middle-school years! This year started with Pokémon, progressed to “bottle-flipping,” transmogrified into DIY “slime” being brought into the classroom, and has now spun out of control in a new direction…), and I know that it’s wiser to redirect excitement than to quell it entirely!
As such, I came up with a plan (above and beyond simply confiscating spinners in my classroom — which I also do): I was already going to make my end-of-year classes fun, PBL-style projects involving learning CAD modeling and 3D printing; why not inform the kids that one of the things they would be able to print would be a “fidget spinner”??
Now, that got their attention! Of course, there were a few caveats (the key is to make something that you really want them to do anyway seem like it’s a special privilege or reward — which, of course, is what gaining knowledge really is, but it’s not always viewed that way by students…):
- In order to participate in our 3D modeling/printing activity, they would have to have all of their math homework done for the end of the year.
- They would have to provide some of their own parts/money (in particular, the key component of spinners — ball bearings, such as those used in skateboards and in-line skates — can add up in price. Especially if you have 75+ students like I do.)
Especially fitting was when one of my many “spun” students asked “Can we really design and print our own spinners?” and I replied “Yes… but you’ll probably need to provide your own bearings… not sure I can afford them for everybody, or purchase them in time.” His response? “That’s okay… they’re cheap. Only $5.”
“For how many?” I asked.
His response: “Does it matter?”
Uh oh. Time for a math review! (Unit price is a 6th grade CCSS standard!)
Ways to give Spinners an Educational Spin!
Here are some creative ideas I came up with to bring spinners into the classroom and incorporate the excitement, rather than crush it:
- Perform an experiment to see how long spinners stay spinning on a single flick. (Science and math, including hypothesis, scientific method, dependent and independent variables, mean and median.)
- Create your own DIY spinners: CAD modeling/3D printing, or even out of other materials (For ours, we will be creating CAD designs with TinkerCAD, and then 3D printing the models — you can learn more about 3D printers on my Maker Tools For Schools website)
- Spinner science:
- What makes the spinner spin?
- Does it matter if all of the sides or “spokes” are balanced?
- Why are they weighted?
- What happens if you move the weights further out from the center?
- Does the type of bearing in the middle matter?
- What about the bearings on the outer edges?
- Spinner math:
- How much will materials cost to make one?
- How can we find the best deal on parts? (Example: I will be having students compare unit price of different offerings for bearings on Amazon.com)
- Performance Task: Determine the “best” components to purchase to create a fidget spinner (hint: this is not a single, simple answer! It involves unit price, as well as evaluating and weighing user reviews, as well as recognition that the purpose of center bearings and outside bearings are not the same…)