The Fidget Toy: What it is, Why it's so Popular, and Why they Work

How can a popular toy in grades K-12 also be claimed by Forbes to be the "…the must-have office toy for 2017"? The shocking popularity of new gadgets called fidget toys has got heads spinning -- and hands fidgeting!

What are fidget toys?

Four fidget spinners in hand

Fidget toys are small, handheld gadgets designed to encourage repetitive movements like clicking, spinning, button-pushing and flicking. While many objects can work as fidget toys, these mechanical devices are designed for the specific purpose of fidgeting.

They belong to a burgeoning industry making products primarily intended for those with attention deficit disorders, autism, anxiety, OCD, or stress. But even for adults and children not facing those challenges, these toys are proving popular. Their widespread adoption by people of all ages indicates a near universal appeal.

Why are fidget toys so popular? 

Pink fidget spinner in hand

Fidget toys are engaging, relaxing, and just plain fun. You can get one for just a couple bucks, and they are easy to use for almost anyone. They're unique looking toys that come in a wide array of designs -- which also makes them fun to collect and trade.

And since they are often very inexpensive, the socioeconomic class and age of the users are irrelevant. Even education and IQ don’t factor into their usefulness. If you have working hands -- and especially if you have “busy hands” -- fidget toys can satisfy a need that many people seem to have.

Examples of popular designs include:

Spinners

Spinners

These little handheld propellers are currently the king of the fidget toy universe.

Fidget cubes and dice

Fidget cubes and dice

Little cubes with all sides having various fidgeting mechanisms.

Fidget rings

Fidget rings

Wearable rings with movable mechanisms that allow for subtle and discreet micro-fidgets with your thumb.

Moondrop fidget toys

Moondrop fidget toys

A metal, magnetized rod-shaped device with a dropping slider that simulates “gravity on the moon”.

Other reasons these toys are all the rage:

A large box of fidget spinners

1. The world loves fads

It’s been quite a while since a non-electronic toy or device that can be played with in virtually any setting captivated the world as fidget toys have. Maybe the closest thing that was close to this popular was the Rubik’s Cube, but that “toy” was made by one company and it required a high level of intelligence, or a lot of practice and effort, to solve. Also, once the puzzle is completed, the toy loses its charm. Anyone could play with it, but it frustrates the majority of users. Fidget toys are the complete opposite!

2. They're all over the internet

Sites like FaceBook, YouTube, Reddit, and Instagram have all played roles in spreading the word (and images) about these gadgets. Search for fidget toys on any of these sites and see the results. It’s mind boggling to see how vast the interest is.

3. They're sold almost everywhere

Fidget toys are sold now in gas stations, toy stores, airports, pharmacies, and many online marketplaces, as well as from original manufacturers selling handcrafted fidget toys, and specialty websites serving ADHD and autism patients.

4. They’re truly useful

For anyone dealing with stress, or challenges with anxiety, autism, or ADHD, fidget toys provide a simple outlet for many behaviors that often play out in the form of “bad habits”. Constantly tapping hands on a desk, clicking pens, mussing hair (or even pulling it out), nail biting, nose picking, scratching with no real itch, and other annoying or destructive behaviors can be reassigned (sublimated) to the functions of a fidget toy. It’s a safe outlet for what can otherwise be self-destructive impulses.

Do fidget toys really work?

Definition of the word fiddle

Fidget toys work exactly how they are supposed to work. They allow the user to fidget, fiddle and fixate on small movements in a (mostly) discreet manner. They are not meant to be a cure-all for mental health issues, but they do provide an option for many of those strange things we do with our hands. While many of these items are sold and marketed as “fidget toys for ADHD” or even “autism toys,” they are still just toys – not medical devices. They should be seen through that prism, although things like them are sometimes recommended by medical and mental health professionals.

“I think a Slinky is one of the earliest fidget toys,” psychologist Harris Stratyner told CBS. The psychologist said that while fidget toys are often used by professionals treating patients with autism, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD, just about anyone can improve their focus by using a fidget toy.

“It just centers you,” Stratyner told CBS. “And when you’re fidgeting with something, your hands are feeding back to your brain a signal that you’re involved in a repetitive task. That repetitive task frees up your mind.”

The goal is to have a way to channel the fidgeting impulses without engaging in self-destructive habits. Fidget toys are a non-medical way of addressing fidgeting by channeling it into a safe and contained activity.

Aren’t fidget toys distracting?

Red and blue fidget spinners in hand

The use of fidget toys can be either active or passive. You can fidget in a focused manner, or in an absent-minded way that frees the mind to work on more important things. Most common fidgeting activities tend to either occupy a great deal of the fidgeter’s attention (think smart phones), be self-destructive (nail-biting), or disturb others nearby (tapping on a desk).

While fidget toys are not a cure for hyperactivity, they promote relaxation for busy hands and wandering minds. Fidgeting – especially in a school environment -- can impede learning. Having a discreet release for this need can encourage focus either by promoting active engagement with the toy, or by allowing passive use.

Some people may find fidget toys to be a distraction, but they can be used to great effect without creating a distraction at all. The most popular “fidget toy” of all these days may be smartphones. But try to imagine using a smartphone – checking FaceBook, Youtube, text messaging, playing games – in a passive way!

Fidget toys are a tool you can use to occupy those impulses. Like all tools, their effectiveness comes down to how they’re used. With just a little bit of consideration for others, a fidget toy can be helpful, and may increase productivity and attention.

Is there evidence that they work?

White fidget spinner in hand

Hand one to a toddler and they will begin playing with it in the same manner as an adult would. They require only basic motor skills and the impulse to do something. If you have the dexterity of a three-year-old and the need to fidget, you’re the target customer. But the simplicity and faddish nature may mask something that has real value.

Motherboard recently ran an article intended to debunk claims made about the benefits of toys like this. Soon after publication, they changed the title, and added an editor’s note with an apology to readers: “Since the publication of this article, many people have written to say that fidget spinners have helped them or their children cope with autism, anxiety, or ADHD.”

While Motherboard intended that article to target how fidget toys have been marketed by some retailers, they admitted that it was “dismissive of the lived experiences of people with those conditions...”

Scientists often call user testimonials “anecdotal evidence”, but it isn’t necessarily bad evidence. Fidget toys are too new to have complex research, data, and rigorous study behind them. And although there should be some rules on how products are sold, and what claims are made, the most important thing is how real lives are being affected with these products.

Take a second to read the staggering numbers of posts and testimonials on social media channels and you'll see that many people – individuals and parents – feel very strongly about the benefits they or their children receive from these toys.