There is a lot of social media furor right now about fidget spinners. In many of these posts, people talk about how stupid fidget spinners are, and brag about how glad they are they don’t need a gadget to focus. One blog post even went so far as compare fidget spinners with the fall of civilization, and called for anyone needing special accommodations such as physical movement to “overcome this need”. (Would the author feel the same way about glasses, hearing aids, or wheelchairs? I scarcely want to ask.)
The reality is, not all learners are wired the same way. Not all students fit into a neat and tidy box of expectations. Not all students are best served by sitting at a desk. In fact, when some children are required to remain motionless in order to learn, the child’s entire capacity for focus is spent on the enormous task of sitting still, and there’s very little left over to actually absorb the information being presented.
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I am not advocating for permissive parenting or defying authority. I’m not calling for kids to disrespect teachers, or saying we can’t gently train the art of sitting still. I’m saying sitting still is more than just a matter of discipline. I’m saying that sitting still is harder for some children than others, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with providing these children the appropriate tools needed to equip them to succeed at the task of sitting still.
For children who wired a certain way, the physiological need to move is overwhelming. Since my daughter was in utero, she’s been driven by a relentless need to move. When I was pregnant, ultrasound techs would gather around and giggle at the nonstop somersaults of this tiny wild child. Within five hours of birth, she lifted her head off my chest, and looked around at everyone in the room. She’s made to move. God made her to move. This is who she is.
But society does not favor the wiggly wild child. At home, I can let her run laps around the living room while letting her answer comprehension questions and math problems orally. Outside the home, though, I often need to equip her with the tools she needs to fit in. Without the proper tools, my brilliant neurodivergent daughter — who could read before pre-K, scored in the 99th percentile on every single section of the IOWA test, and is academically many grades beyond her chronological age — will sometimes rock back and forth, scoot on the ground, hang upside down, spin repeatedly on one foot, chew on her shirt, tip her chair back, or engage in any number of other behaviors generally frowned upon by society at large. Obviously, this isn’t ideal in a public setting and poses a true distraction to those around her. But by equipping her with a hands-on focus tool, these behaviors can be minimized and controlled.
So, to allow my daughter to blend in as discreetly as possible, distract others as little as possible, and still be able to focus on the task at hand, I often provide her with the tools she needs in order to overcome her physiological need to move. This means allowing her to chew PÜR gum or a chewable silicon pendant, place a wiggle seat/balance disk on her chair (this is an air-filled therapeutic seat pad allowing the user to discreetly rock in place), quietly twist a Tangle, manipulate a puzzle fidget, squeeze Thinking Putty — or, heaven forbid, play with something like an actual fidget spinner.
This does not make her less of a person. This does not mean she’s lacking discipline. She still has the self-control to sit in a classroom and engage productively in the lesson, read stack and stacks of books at home (yes, sometimes while hanging upside down off the side of the couch), teach herself new songs on the piano (while standing and dancing), play with LEGO bricks (while scooting around on the floor), or consume curriculum at breakneck speed (while gently rocking side to side on her wiggle seat).
Whether young or old, child or adult, male or female, all people learn in different ways. Some people need to move, and some don’t. Some people prefer to listen to an audiobook, others would rather read. Some people need see a concept sketched out on paper in order to understand, others prefer to approach new ideas in an audio-visual way. Everyone is wired differently — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What’s wrong is is to ridicule therapeutic items — which have a legitimate and beneficial use for individuals wired a certain way — as pointlessly distracting toys. What’s wrong is to demean the outliers who have a legitimate need to fidget in order to focus.
Fidgeting doesn’t signal moral failure or weakness. It’s not going to trigger the downfall of civilization. It just means some people have a little bit of wiggle. It just means some people are wired a little bit differently. And that’s okay.
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