As a sixth-grade teacher in Bedford, N.H., Patricia Burke has had a front-row seat from which to observe the various trends that have captured the attention of tweens.
There were the colorful, do-it-yourself loom bracelets from a few years back. Then bottle-flipping became all the rage. And though it has never officially made its way into her classroom, she’s well aware of the recent homemade slime craze, too.
But there’s another trend getting traction: fidget toys — small, mindless, hand-held gadgets meant to harness nervous energy by giving people something to fiddle with.
“When we got back from Christmas break, a couple of kids had them, then a couple more kids had them, and then they were definitely en vogue,” Burke says. “It’s amazing what can grab their attention and their money and their focus.”
Ostensibly aimed at the antsy and the stressed — those in need of a mindless activity to burn off excess energy and help with focus — the gadgets have entered the mainstream, garnering the attention of everyone from grade-schoolers to young professionals, from teachers to researchers as welcome outlets for restless hands and fingers.
Etsy, the online hub for handmade goods, is packed with customized versions of the toys. Forbes.com called fidget spinners — a small toy often constructed out of aluminum or 3-D-printed plastic combined with ball bearings — “the must-have office toy for 2017.”
Perhaps no company has ridden the wave as successfully as the Denver-based Antsy Labs, which launched a Kickstarter campaign last August to raise money for its so-called “fidget cube,” described as “an unusually addicting, high-quality desk toy designed to help you focus.”
A small, six-sided gadget, the fidget cube is a simple toy featuring, among other things, a tiny joystick, gears and a rolling ball, and something akin to a little light switch.
The features don’t do anything, except move back and forth. The goal is simply to let fidgeters fidget.
“This behavior isn’t one that should continue to be stigmatized and mocked as unbecoming or inappropriate,” the company founders, brothers Matthew and Mark McLachlan, wrote on its crowd funding Kickstarter page. “We are passionate about the idea that fidgeting is a process that, with the right tools and outlet, can have positive and real-life applications.”
After beginning with the relatively modest goal of raising $15,000, the company went on to raise almost $6.5 million — making it one of the most-funded Kickstarter campaigns of all-time.
One early adopter was Greg Herrmann of Brighton, who works in account management for business advertising through Google AdWords.
A habitual scribbler and pen-clicker, Herrmann saw an ad on Facebook last year for the cube, was intrigued, and shelled out $20 for a gadget of his own.
His fidget cube arrived a couple months ago, and quickly became a part of his daily work life; in the time since, he has found himself fiddling with it during phone calls or meetings — any time his hands aren’t otherwise occupied.
Asked during a phone interview how often he uses the device, he replied, “I actually have it in my hand right now.”
So what’s the draw?
“There’s no real output to it,” he explains. “You’re not changing a channel, you’re not changing the volume. It’s all kind of contained in that cube.”
In Kingston, Cindy Collins’s two children have each gone through a variety of fidget-type toys. Her son, who’s on the autism spectrum, has occasionally used them to keep calm, and her 12-year-old daughter, who has attention-deficit disorder, sometimes keeps a fidget toy with her in class, to help with focus.
But while Collins says the toys can be beneficial — she knows some parents who swear by them — she also points out that, in her case, there are limits to their capabilities.
“I think a lot of people go into it thinking that it’s a cure-all,” Collins says. “But every child is different. What works for one is not going to work for another.”
Indeed, the actual effectiveness of such tools is the subject of some debate.
Julie Schweitzer is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis, where she’s also part of the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute.
She has studied ADHD and fidgeting — one recent study of teenagers and pre-teens suggested that fidgeting might improve the cognitive performance of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder — but she stops short of calling fidget toys a “treatment.”
Since the toys began to gain mainstream attention, multiple companies have reached out to her seeking an endorsement of their products.
She has declined, citing a lack of research.
“But I’m curious,” Schweitzer says. “If some of these fidget tools work, and it improves their academic function, that would be great. It would be fantastic.”
For now, there appears to be plenty of interest, regardless.
Herrmann, for instance, has grown so used to having his cube in his hands that, these days, it can feel strange not to.
“I was speaking with my brother at home last night, and I ... started looking for where it was,” says Herrmann, who keeps his gadget at the office. “I’m at the point where I might actually (have to) get a second one.”
Of course, like many fads, there is likely a limit to how long they’ll be trendy.
As Burke, the sixth-grade teacher, points out, the shelf-life for such things isn’t always lengthy.
“The majority come and go quickly,” she says. “I don’t think you tend to see these things come back the following year.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.