Pencil Grasp Development

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palmar pencil grasp in toddler

Moving through the different stages of pencil grasp development is an important part of early childhood 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!

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.

There are principles of development called “big to small” and “proximal to distal(Myers [1])

Basically this means that children develop the larger muscles of the trunk and arms before the smaller muscles of the hands, and that the proximal muscles closer to the body centre (eg shoulder muscles, upper arm muscles) develop before the distal muscles which are further away (eg hand muscles)

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”.

Rather encourage overall development of their Gross Motor Skills and Fine Motor Skills.

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.

Stages of Pencil Grasp Development

(As 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.)

1) Fisted Grasp

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.

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2) Palmar Grasp

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.

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3) Five Finger 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.

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4) Tripod Pencil Grasp

By age 5-6, or even a bit later with some children, they should be comfortable using a mature 3-finger pencil grip.

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.

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Switching Grasps

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!

So don’t discourage your child from going back to an earlier grasp; instead, promote correct pencil grasp development by doing some gross motor activities to strengthen the shoulder girdle and core muscles and use some fine motor activities to improve hand and finger strength and dexterity.

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Cutting with scissors will give your child good practice in getting the tripod fingers to work together.

My scissor cutting e-book contains lots of ideas, activities and bonus cutting templates.

Good control of the pencil for handwriting will only come as the finger muscles become more skilled.

My fine motor e-book gives all the fine motor ideas on this site in an accessible way, with lots of bonus material.

Download This Page

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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› Pencil Grasp Development


1) Myers, Beverly. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Approach. Occupational Therapy for Physical Dysfunction. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1995.

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