Moving through the different stages of pencil grasp development is an important part of childhood development.
There are principles of development called “big to small” and “proximal
to distal” (Myers)
Basically this means that children develop control over the larger muscles of the trunk and arms which are closer to the body centre (proximal) before the smaller muscles of the hands which are distal (further away from the body centre).
Learning to control a pencil or crayon with the hands and fingers is therefore somewhat dependent on how “strong and steady” the shoulder and arm muscles are.
As your child develops physically, and takes part in lots of fun gross motor activities such as creeping / crawling, climbing and pushing, the shoulder and arm muscles will get stronger and steadier, and this can have a positive effect on the development of fine motor skills, including pencil grasp.
Read more about the different stages below:
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.)
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 good finger movements.
Please read my page on functional pencil grasps to view photos and descriptions of other pencil grasps that may work for your child, including the D'Nealian Pencil Grasp.
The D'Nealian pencil grasp is helpful for kids who struggle with weak hands, low muscle tone, and/or joint pain.
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 and endurance 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”.
Do you have questions about your child's pencil grip, or about what constitutes a poor pencil grip?
This printable resource aims to help by answering common questions that teachers and parents have about how a child should hold a pencil.
Many people think that the dynamic tripod grip is the only functional way to hold the pencil, but in reality, there are some variations on the tripod grip that can also be functional – I show these, as well as photos of dysfunctional grips and feedback on each.
However, if your child has underlying developmental delays or other difficulties, he/she may need additional help and encouragement in moving through the stages of pencil grasp development, so consult your local health professional if you are in any way concerned.
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