"A what?" I asked him.
"A fidget spinner," he said, grabbing my laptop and quickly typing the name into Amazon.
And there they were—a bunch of colorful, three-pronged gadgets designed to be spun on the fingers as a way to harness energy and give easily-distracted kids something to do in class.
At first glance, I totally didn't get it. They looked like a bunch of pacifiers with an extra petal and some steel bearings. But when our spinner arrived the next day and I finally got to see the thing in action—thank you, Amazon Prime!—I instantly understood the appeal. Not only did the repeated revolutions look super-cool, but keeping the toy going was actually pretty challenging.
So how did this become a thing? Turns out, fidget spinners were originally developed back in the early 90s by Florida mom Catherine Hettinger as a therapeutic aid to help children with autism and ADHD. Then, late last year, they suddenly became a hot anti-stress office toy, thanks to a stamp of approval from Forbes. Credit the trickle-down effect, but by the time January gave way to February, the majority of kids in my son's class were spinning their way through school, whether they had attention problems or not.
"They're popular because they give people a way to take their scattered distractions and focus in on one action," explains Julian Smith, a 16-year-old spinner maker who started his company, FidgetPros, using a 3D printer in his Long Island basement. "It's a gadget with a purpose."
Smith told us he brought his first homemade Spinner to school back in November and all the kids wanted it, so he started making more. He now has dozens of 3D printers and has sold more than 100,000 of these things in various shades and styles since he first started, with blue, red, silver, and glow-in-the-dark models leading the way.
Spinners from various manufacturers currently make up all of Amazon's top 15 best-sellers for toys and games. Pretty impressive. Of course, along with the crazy surge in popularity came the inevitable backlash, and some time around mid-March school districts across the country—my son's included—began banning fidgets for being too much of distraction. How's that for irony?
"I understand why schools ban them," Smith told us. "Like chewing gum and texting, it's a distraction to the student and the rest of the class. But when something is banned, it's more desirable."
He's not wrong. A quick search for "fidget spinner" on YouTube reveals hundreds of videos breaking down everything from which brands rotate the longest, to tutorials for making them at home and mastering cool tricks. Even the infamous Eh Bee family recently gave the trend a twirl in a cute YouTube unboxing vid:
The family that spins together, stays together...right?
Sure, some parents complain that the faint whirring noise some versions make is annoying. But it's nothing compared to the grating slam that came from the constant flipping of water bottles. Plus, the spinners don't make a big mess of my kitchen like slime did. And while there's little documented evidence that these things actually work for their originally-intended purpose, my son is terrified of flying, so we brought one on the plane over spring break, and I would swear that it helped 86 his fear. Well that, and the king-sized Hershey bar we let him devour during takeoff.
But still. As far as kids' crazes go, I'm totally down with this one—athough I do think it's kind of bummer that Hettinger hasn't received a single dime from her invention, since she couldn't afford the $400 patent renewal fee and let it run out in 2005. So if you want to help a mother out, go support her Kickstarter campaign.