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Moving through the different stages of pencil grasp development is an important part of childhood.
Each stage of holding a pencil or crayon is dependent on how “steady” the shoulder and arm muscles are.
As your child develops physically, and takes part in lots of fun gross motor activities such as crawling, climbing and pushing, the shoulder and arm muscles will get stronger and steadier, and this should help your child's pencil grasp to mature as well.
This page covers:
it is really hard to take good photos of kiddie hands in action, most
of the stages below are demonstrated by adult hands holding the pencil.)
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When your toddler first grabs a thick crayon and puts it to paper (hopefully not to your walls!), this is the grasp you could be seeing.
It is a “fisted grasp”, and your toddler will be using movement from the shoulder to get the crayon to move across the paper.
As your toddler gains more control over arm and hand muscles, you will see this “palmar grasp” being used.
Here, the pencil lies across the palm of the hand and your child’s elbow is held out to the side a bit.
The shoulder muscles are steadier, and your child is using the arm muscles to move the crayon around, as well as the shoulder muscles. This photo shows a toddler using a palmar pencil grasp.
This is sometimes, misleadingly, called an “immature” 5-finger pencil grasp – it is immature because it is not the 3-finger grasp that is used in school, but it is a perfectly mature grasp for a 4-year old!
As you can see, there are 5 fingers holding the pencil.
With this 5-finger pencil grasp, the wrist is usually held off the table and wrist movements are used for coloring.
The crayon is often held very tightly initially, but as the hand muscles develop, you should see a few finger movements emerging.
This left-handed toddler has developed a 5 point pencil grasp that is appropriate for her age.
By age 5-6, or even a bit later with some children, they should be comfortable using a tripod pencil grip, where the thumb, middle and index fingers are grasping the pencil or crayon.
At first, the fingers will be held stiffly and your child may still use wrist movements to draw and color, but as the finger muscles become more skilled, your child will be able to use finger movements to draw and to form letters.
Although the tripod pencil grip has traditionally been considered to be the "best" pencil grip because it allows for the most finger movements, there are other ways of holding the pencil that also allow for some finger movements. Please read my page on functional pencil grasps to view photos and descriptions of these.
Don’t be surprised if you see your young child switching between pencil grasps.
As the shoulder and arm muscles become stronger and steadier, your child should switch less and less.
We can liken this to a baby learning to walk – when his legs are tired of walking, he goes back to crawling, but as his endurance and skill improves, he will walk more and more!
don’t discourage your child from going back to an earlier grasp;
instead, promote correct pencil grasp development by working on the the underlying foundations for good fine motor development.
Please, do NOT force your toddler to hold the pencil the way a school child does, with 3 fingers on the pencil – you may do more harm than good. It is very hard to “unlearn” a poor pencil grip later in life!
When a child is forced to use a “proper” pencil grasp before the shoulder and arm muscles are ready to support it, you may find fine motor problems emerging, such as holding the pencil in “weird” ways, messy work and even avoidance of drawing and coloring tasks.
So, don’t be in a hurry to make your child draw or color “properly”.
However, if your child has underlying developmental delays or other difficulties, he/she will need additional help and encouragement, so consult your local professional if you are in any way concerned.
In response to popular request, I have made a free downloadable PDF of this Pencil Grasp Development page that can be used as a printed handout.
Please reference my site when you hand it out.
Please do not link directly to the PDF from your site - rather link to this page. Thank you!
Thank you for visiting this page on pencil grasp development! I hope you found it helpful!
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Benbow, M. Neurokinesthetic approach to hand function and handwriting. Albuquerque: Clinician’s View, 1995
Myers, Beverly. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Approach. Occupational Therapy for Physical Dysfunction. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1995.
Selin, A-S. Pencil grip: a descriptive model and 4 empirical studies (dissertation). Abo Akademi University Press, 2003. ISBN 951-765-130-9
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