We think of spinning tops around the holidays, because, of course, that's when the dreidels come out with their game of nun, gimmel, hay, and shin, this simple game of chance, ones, and percentages.
I'm not exactly sure how we acquired such a large collection of tops of all kinds, but a collection like this offers a kind of graduated scale of challenges, from those that are set into motion at a virtual touch, right up to tops that make you wish you'd finished that degree in mechanical engineering. Watching children play with them is one of the many ways to evaluate the status to their fine motor skills, their temperaments, and their learning styles.
There are a lot of ways to spin a top, but most of ours require the complex task of pinching them by their stems and imparting motion through a snapping of the fingers -- something no one is born knowing. It's a learned skill, one that some kids manage instantly after carefully watching a few demonstrations, while others need to finger those tops for themselves, not letting you even show them the technique before snatching it from your hand.
Many give up when it isn't easy for them, or resort to a game they already know like counting or sorting. Others furrow their brows and work on the skill for many minutes at a time, persisting in practicing, practicing, practicing (failing, failing, failing) until they nail it. Some, you can tell, no matter how hard they work at it, are not going to impart a tight enough spin on the toy today to keep it upright. Do they ultimately give it up with a shrug or only after a teary fight? And when their frustrations come out that way do they throw themselves on the floor in despair or rather keep right on trying, even as their emotions flourish? Do they accept my offering of one of the simpler to spin tops or is it all about mastering this specific one?
Not everyone choses to drop by the top table, and when they do there is no expectation about how they play with the things. Many, for instance, just like the game of knocking down the tops you spin for them, the more and faster the better, but when they do take on the challenge of spinning it's a good chance to observe how their fingers, minds and emotions work together as they learn a new skill, and once learned how do those new abilities translate to the challenge of spinning the next top in the hierarchy of complexity.
It's a test, in a way, not one where the teacher has taught a lesson and is now making the children prove themselves, but rather the useful kind of test, the kind from which both teacher and student learn.