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NOURISHING STARVING HANDS: Idle Hands, Fidget Spinners & Vitamin N

About the Author

Part biomechanist, part science communicator, and full-time mover, Katy Bowman has educated hundreds of thousands of people on the role that movement plays in the body and in the world through live classes, best-selling books, and an award-winning podcast. Blending a scientific approach with straight talk about sensible, whole-life movement solutions, Katy also volunteers her time by providing movement courses across widely varying demographics and working with non-profits promoting nature education. She spends as much time as possible outdoors.

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For a certain demographic (mainly ages 4-14), 2017 was the Year of the Fidget Spinner. This transfixing spinner mesmerized many a good portion of the year, showing up in classrooms, parks and dinner tables alike. One thing seemed clear: kids were satiated by the sensation of this toy spinning in their hands.

Just as nature seems to be an essential input (a nutrient), movement, too, is essential to humans. As a biomechanist studying human movement and how it relates to health and human development, I work to break down all the ways movement moves us—the elements of movement. Just as a diet includes the need for a range of macro and micronutrients, a movement diet requires all parts of the body be moved in various ways. Without well-distributed movements, parts of us can have a movement-nutrition deficiency. A good example of this is our underused hands.

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Compared to other parts, hands are extremely complex in anatomy that facilitates diverse movements. From subtle movements at the skin and nerve level, to the numerous joints and muscles that facilitate fine motor skills, and the large-force grasping and hanging motions we have the potential to do, hands are built to facilitate quite a range of motion. But these days, the bulk of our hand-movement experiences are primarily comprised of writing with one hand, typing, and swiping. It’s no wonder children gravitated this year toward something to keep their under-moved hands stimulated.

Fidget spinners, like a candy bar, are instant nourishment for starving hands.

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My son will have me say here that fidget spinners are great. The other day, he created wind by fidget-spinning next to a candle flame. This became experiments in fluid dynamics, which opened discussions on phenomenon like weather and the invisible yet tangible forces of nature. Fidget spinners also offer balance practice, observation and response, and sensory stimulation. But while the fidget spinner provides these nutrients, it’s providing them in the most basic way—the way a candy bar meets our hunger signals. A candy bar can shut off a hunger signal while still being nutritionally meager compared to other options. 

We live in a culture where human-wilderness interactions and nature knowledge are at an all-time low, grip strengths are declining, sedentarism is increasing, but the benefits to moving in nature are understood.

What if we thought of a fidget spinner as what it could possibly be: a sort of “junk food” for the hands? And if fidget spinners are simply an easy way to turn off the signals of movement and engagement “hunger” the body creates to naturally prompt us out get out and explore and engage with the natural world with our hands, is there a more nutritious way of meeting our need to fidget?

Nutrient-dense food is most often whole foods—minimally processed and look most similar to how they look at their source. Nutrient-dense movements are similar—they are movements humans have relied on throughout our history, movements that simultaneously provide us with shelter, food, clothing, and or anything else we need to successfully interact with the natural world around us. Nature’s fidget spinners, then, could be those motions that not only require mindful movement of our hands and brain, but also deliver experiential knowledge of how nature works.

Nature’s fidget spinners

The scientific method is the pursuit of understanding natural phenomenon, but the art of observing nature in, around, and beneath your hands is also a means of understanding it. Think of these natural tasks:

  • Catching and gently holding bugs
  • Selecting and picking good reeds for weaving
  • Weaving baskets and mats
  • Making yarn and knitting with it, making cordage
  • Picking flowers, arranging bouquets
  • Tossing helicopter seeds
  • Holding frogs
  • Feeding birds by hand
  • Foraging
  • Digging in sand, mud
  • Planting (especially with sticks or other tools)
  • Gathering (nuts, berries, acorns, nettle)
  • Processing gathered food (cracking nuts, mashing with mortar pestle)
  • Climbing hills and trees

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Each of these can sate the movement-hunger that makes a fidget spinner attractive, while also carrying a host of other movements and benefits with them, including experiential knowledge, skill, compassion, accomplishment, and a deepened and broadened connection with nature.

Balancing the spinner

Just as we don’t want our kids eating only junk food, we can also be mindful of the various “nutrients” found in movement. I can steer my kids away from junk food by providing them with a wide range of nutritious options, and similarly, we can also provide a wide array of nutritious movement options. This means regularly facilitating time in nature or green spaces, creating or finding hand-based tasks that facilitate interactions with the movements of the plants and animals we share the world with.

I’ve also found that I had to clue into my own behavior. I suspect another reason fidget spinners are so popular is that children are naturally incredible copycats, modeling constantly how the people around them are moving. When I cast a quick mechanical eye to it, the fidget spinner movement looks strikingly similar to the ten thousand swiping motions many of us make in front of children each day. Are we, in fact, training to our kids to swipe? (Note to self, another benefit of limiting device use during nature time is to not only cut down on the swiping modeling, but also to keep my own hands free for nature interactions!)

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One of the wonderful things about a fidget spinner, compared to a more static toy, is that the spinner creates its own set of forces to which you must respond. A fidget spinner feels alive in your hands. But a spinner isn’t alive and isn’t a full substitute for the diverse sensations created by climbing a tree, gently cradling a wounded bird, feeling the unpredictable skitter of a salamander, the cunning breakaway of a grasshopper, or digging up a potato. We can learn so much about physics, nature, and how we fit into the world around us by feeling how other animals move, and how animals and plants can move us right back.

As the Year of the Fidget Spinner draws to a close, I agree with my son, as we wind up a few hours in nature with a bout of candle-side fidget spinning.

“Fidget spinners are great. But an ant crawling in your hand? That’s simply miraculous.”

Photo credits: Katy Bowman and Jess Haugen


More reading and resources 

COMING TO OUR 30 SENSES: In an era of sensory dysfunction, are we creating environments in which our children are less alive? And in greater danger?

CHILDREN & NATURE NETWORK RESEARCH LIBRARY

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy

SMART PILLS VS. NATURE SMART: Want Your Kids to Do Better in School? Try a Dose of “Vitamin N”

THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be The Real Cutting Edge of Education

THE HYBRID MIND: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need


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