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Understanding Pencil Grasp Developmental Milestones: A Guide for Parents

Introduction

Is his grasp okay? How should they hold a pencil? Do I hold it correctly? He seems to hold

a pencil too tightly, what should I do? — Common questions occupational therapists may hear from parents about their child. Pencil grasp is not just important for children learning to color and write their name. Learning a proper pencil grasp develops the arches of the hands, improves finger and hand strength, improves dexterity, and in-hand manipulation skills we need to carry-out many of our daily activities. Those important skills are needed to button our shirts, open food packages, twist off caps, floss our teeth, type proficiently, and so much more. Let’s dive into the typical progression of pencil grasp, ways to develop a functional grasp, and know when to intervene.


Pencil grasp development 

Kids usually first grab a writing utensil with their whole hand and make big marks/scribbles with motion coming from their shoulder. Usually between 1.5 and 2 years of age they will transition to a palm down grasp using more of their fingertips to do the holding and motion to write coming from the elbow. Between 3 and 4 years old you will see a transition to more of a tripod grasp but the movement to write comes from the wrist. Around 4 and 5 years old they will typically hold the pencil with a 3 or 4 finger grasp with movement coming from the fingers. These grasps are called a dynamic tripod and a dynamic quadropod. 


Tips for developing a functional grasp 

It’s important to note that your child’s pencil grasp is not something they innately know how to do and their body naturally goes through this progression. A proper pencil grasp is a skill that needs to be taught. Demonstrate how to hold a crayon, instruct them on where to place their fingers, and PRACTICE a ton. Below are some quick tips to get you started. 

  • Learning Without Tears - The crayon song. This is a great song to play while you are coloring or just in the car. It provides children with clear instructions and repetition to practice. 

  • Smaller the better - Small or broken crayons are ideal to develop the arches of the hand and promote a proper grasp. 

  • Play with tongs - adding tongs to any game or chore is an easy way to develop hand strength needed to hold a crayon while coloring. Tongs also promote a fingertip grasp on utensils. 

  • Hidden treasures - hide small beads or other small items in playdoh for your child to find. Pinching small beads promotes a fingertip grasp and builds hand strength.

  • Color - coloring isn’t just for the table (actually I prefer it not be at the table). Tape a coloring activity on the wall or any vertical surface. This builds shoulder strength and promotes an ideal hand position for coloring. Color while they are lying on their belly to improve core strength and hand position. Color outside with chalk on the sidewalk or with bath crayons in the bathtub. Provide plenty of opportunities to practice their grasp and increase hand strength. 


When to intervene 

My child is 5 years old and is writing his name. How do I know if my child needs intervention? Great question! As an occupational therapist, before I change a child’s grasp I ask myself 4 questions. 

  1. Does their grasp cause them any pain - when they are writing if you notice your child complaining about their hand or fingers hurting that is a good sign they could use a different grasp, adaptation, or need to improve their hand strength. 

  2. Is their writing legible? Letters the appropriate size? Letters oriented correctly? - writing that is difficult to read is a key indicator of either poor grasp, poor foundational formation patterns, poor hand strength, or a combination of those things. 

  3. Do they write with appropriate endurance? If they are easily fatigued or switching hands during writing or coloring it may indicate a challenge with their grasp and hand strength.

  4. Do they write with appropriate speed? If they are taking a considerable amount of time to write their name or a simple sentence they could benefit from intervention


If one of these things is happening it does not automatically mean to change their grasp. Having an assessment done by an occupational therapist would provide you with the information you need to help improve your child’s handwriting and pencil grasp. 


For a complete guide on pencil grasp progression, pictures of each of the stages, and a print out of the activities I listed, be sure to download my free Pencil Grasp Guide. 


As always email me at calli@confidentkidstherapy.com with any questions.


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