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Spin zone: Hot new toy mesmerizes local kids, vexes some adults

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Lucinda Breeding
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Marlena Flores, a third grader at Ryan Elementary School, loves her fidget spinner. The spinner is a popular new toy. The spinner has at least three small arms that revolve around a bearing. A flick of the finger sets the device to spinning with the speed of a top. Some teachers hate the spinners, others say the toys help students focus and soothe students with anxiety or autism. , Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Denton, Texas, Jeff Woo/DRCDRC
Marlena Flores, a third grader at Ryan Elementary School, loves her fidget spinner. The spinner is a popular new toy. The spinner has at least three small arms that revolve around a bearing. A flick of the finger sets the device to spinning with the speed of a top. Some teachers hate the spinners, others say the toys help students focus and soothe students with anxiety or autism. , Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Denton, Texas, Jeff Woo/DRC
DRC

Toys don't get much simpler than the fidget spinner.

The wildly popular must-have gizmo is simply a single piece of plastic or metal with at least three protruding arms and a ball bearing in the center.

With the flick of a finger, the fidget spinner seemed to go whirling into the hearts of American children almost as fast as the tiny propeller can spin.

And as simple as the toys are, the explanations for why adults like them are complicated:

- The spinning of the little propeller is soothing.

- The movement calms kids with ADD or ADHD.

- Fidget spinners help kids with autism stay calm and focused.

Marlena Flores, 8, of Denton loves her shiny purple fidget spinner.

"It kind of makes a shiny crescent moon when you spin it," Marlena said, giving the toy a spin.

Marlena is a third-grader at W.S. Ryan Elementary School. She has dyslexia, a disorder that affects a person's ability to read or interpret letters or symbols. Alyssa Flores, Marlena's mother, said the fidget spinner has helped Marlena focus.

"When I'm stressed out, I play with it and it makes me feel better," Marlena said. "It calms me down."

Marlena works with a specialist who coaches her on reading, something she has to work harder at than students who don't have learning disabilities. Her reading has improved, Flores said.

But reading can still be frustrating for students like Marlena, who have to overcome or adapt to read on grade level. Flores said her daughter telegraphs her frustrations.

"She has some nervous tics, like biting her nails," Flores said. "When the spinner seemed like it was helping, we asked her teacher if she could use one in class. We decided that she could use a stress ball."

While stress balls don't have moving parts or make a soft whirring noise, Marlena said the squishy stress ball, filled with sand, helps her concentrate in class.

For brothers Donovan and Landon Bernal, ages 9 and 8, the spinners are a cool new toy. They both discovered spinners at Houston Elementary School in Denton.

"I play with the fifth-graders a lot, and the fifth-graders had them on the playground," Donovan said.

Like Marlena, Landon and Donovan have just one spinner. Even their 10-month-old baby brother takes an interest, crawling toward the boys and looking up at their toys as they whirl.

"You can do different tricks with them," Landon said, watching his brother balance his spinner on his thumb. "You can also spin it on your hat."

It's more of a challenge for Landon to set the toy spinning on top of a ballcap he grabs to demonstrate.

Even the Bernal brothers have heard the toys help students with attention disorders.

"They say it shuts down the part of your brain that does the ADHD," Donovan said.

Denton resident Charley Smith, who works for the Denton County Sheriff's Office full time, co-owns a side business called MC Novelties. Smith and a childhood friend sell pocketknives and novelties at gun shows around North Texas. Smith has just started selling spinners, and said they are a hot item.

"Primarily, I launched it on Facebook Live to see how it would do," Smith said. "I'm not much of a digital guy. I had a logon but didn't start using it until six months ago. So I put up a Facebook Live video to let people know I was selling the spinners. By the end of the week, from that nine-minute Facebook Live video selling them at a big discount, I ran out. I will have sold about 100 of them. They don't want just one, they're buying seven."

Smith sells plastic spinners, and the fancier metal spinners. He said adults find them as hypnotic as children.

"My wife confiscated mine," Smith said. "Sure enough, I come home from work and she's there, watching Gilmore Girls, fiddling with the spinner she took from me. She can't say anything, now."

While champions of the toys -- teachers on social media seem to either love or hate fidget spinners -- say they help children with learning disabilities focus, there's not solid scientific verification of that.

Melani Jasso, a second grader at Stephens Elementary School in Denton ISD, discovered the fidget spinner at school. "We can't have them out in class," Jasso said. But during recess, students are balancing the toys on their thumbs.DRC staff photograph
Melani Jasso, a second grader at Stephens Elementary School in Denton ISD, discovered the fidget spinner at school. "We can't have them out in class," Jasso said. But during recess, students are balancing the toys on their thumbs.
DRC staff photograph

Kevin Callahan, executive director of the Kristin Farmer Autism Center at the University of North Texas, said he couldn't comment on the usefulness of spinners for children or adults with autism.

"We only use empirically based methodologies here at the center," Callahan said.

On Monday, the toy got its first cautionary note when a story broke about a Houston girl who put a metal part from her toy in her mouth, accidentally swallowed it, and required surgery to remove it from her throat.

Some schools have banned the toys from their campuses. Liberty Christian School, a private Denton school, sold the toys in the campus spirit store earlier in the semester.

Julie Zwahr, the communications coordinator for Denton ISD, said the district hasn't banned the toy. But the student handbook gives teachers and school staff the authority to confiscate any object a student brings to school if it distracts their classmates or their teachers. When an item is confiscated, teachers and staff contact parents to inform them.

"That could be a cellphone," Zwahr said. "You have to keep these things vague. A few years ago, there were the toy skateboards they were selling in the big-box stores. They had sandpaper on them, and students were using them to give each other something almost like a sunburn. The sandpaper could cause an abrasion. So with the spinner things, it all depends on how the kids are using them."

Scott Gibson, the principal at Argyle Middle School, said he's left the issue up to teachers.

"Things we don't have policy for, I give the teachers flexibility to decide if something is a distraction in your room. I say, 'That's your classroom, you take care of what you need to take care of in your classroom. Like you would anything else that's a distraction.'"

Renee Funderburg, principal at Argyle Intermediate School, said she doesn't have a written rule regarding spinners.

"I don't have a policy per se in place, but I have told teachers and students that there are no fidget toys allowed in this school," she said.

Gibson said he doesn't expect to see fidget spinners in every student's hands by next fall when school starts again.

"I believe it's a fad," he said. "I believe these things will come and go in the next year or so."

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.