Parent’s Pencil Grasp Gripping Guide

I thought I would start the year off with a very traditional OT topic and a subject that we often get asked about at the clinic…development of a pencil grip. Many parents often want to know at what age they should be encouraging their child to hold the pencil correctly and how they can encourage their child to use a tripod (3 finger) grip.

Developing a child’s pencil grasp correctly is not just about helping them to learn how to write. Using a dynamic tripod grip helps children to write efficiently, effortlessly and for a greater endurance. Writing will become an automatic task, so that children can spend more time concentrating on what they want to write, rather than how to go about writing it. Developing the correct skills required for using a pencil efficiently will also help to develop other fine motor skills, including typing skills.

Let’s begin by defining what skills are required for using a pencil efficiently. In a typically developing child, the larger, gross muscles will develop before the smaller, fine muscles. Furthermore, the muscles that are closer to the centre of the body will develop before the muscles that are further away from the core. Therefore, a child will first start developing postural control, shoulder stability, arm strength, wrist stability, hand strength then finger strength and manipulation. All of these abilities are required in order to develop a pencil grasp.

So before you even begin to teach a child how to hold a writing tool, start by developing the skills that are required. Build their postural strength through tummy time so they can sit up at a desk. Play push/pull games or hang from monkey bars to develop shoulder and upper arm strength and stability so they can hold their arm steady whilst they write. Strengthen their wrists through painting on an easel or using a rolling pin so they can stabilise their wrists whilst writing. Use trigger spray bottles or hole punches to develop hand grip strength so they have the strength to maintain the arch of the palm whilst writing. Use finger puppets or sing finger songs (eg. One little finger, the itsy bitsy spider, where is Thumbkin?) to encourage independent finger movement so that their fingers can move dynamically and independently in a tripod grasp. Encourage use of pincer grip by threading small beads, using pegs or pinching playdough. Continue doing these activities whilst a child is developing their pencil grip.

Young children will not be strong enough to hold small pencils, nor will they have the control to stabilise their shoulders/wrists. Therefore, they tend to use chunkier writing tools and write using whole arm movements. As their strength and control develops, the movement of writing will move from the whole arm, to the wrist, and finally to the fingertips.

Below is a guide to the different developmental stages of a pencil grip.
1-2 years old: Fisted grip or Palmar Supinate Grip. Children often hold their writing tool like a dagger, scribbling using their whole arm.

 

 

 

 

2-3 years old: Digital Pronate grip. All fingers are holding the writing tool but the wrist is turned so that the palm is facing down towards the page. Children begin to stabilise their shoulders, so that movement now comes mostly from the elbow. At this age, children should start being able to copy a horizontal, vertical and circular line.

3-4 years old: Quadripod grip or 4 finger grip. 4 fingers are held on the writing tool, beginning to form the arc between the thumb and index finger (web space). Movement will occur mostly from the wrist and the hand and fingers move as one whole unit. At this age, children should be able to complete simple dot-to-dots, imitate zig-zag and crossed lines, trace dotted lines and draw simple humans (eg. Head, stick body and one other body part such as arm or leg).

 

4-6 years old: Static Tripod grip. This is a 3 finger grasp, where the thumb, index finger and middle finger work as one unit. At this age, children should be able to copy a diagonal line, a square, a diagonal cross, a circle and a triangle. Pictures of humans become more detailed, including both arms and legs and even facial features.

 

 

As the fingers begin to move independently, the ring and little fingers gently curl into the palm, the web space opens and becomes more circular, the writing tool is held closer to the nib and movement of the writing tool comes from the fingertips (the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder are stabilised) the static tripod grip develops into a fully matured Dynamic Tripod Grip. Children will consistently be using only 3 fingers to hold the writing tool. This is the ideal grip to help move the pencil efficiently, accurately and at a good speed. Your child is now ready to starting practising and perfecting their letter formations! Most children will master the tripod grip by the age of 6 or 7, so there’s no need to raise alarm bells if your child isn’t holding their pencil properly as they start school.

Whilst it’s important to start encouraging the correct pencil grip at a young age,  it’s important to be aware that you are encouraging the correct age-appropriate grip. Getting a 3 year old to use a tripod grip when their muscles aren’t developed enough will only result in them using an awkward version of the grip and these incorrect habits are hard to correct over time. However, you can support the development of their pencil grips by developing the underlying skills required for manipulating a pencil properly, such as grip strength, finger isolation, shoulder stability and postural control.

For more ideas on how to develop your child’s fine motor skills, contact us at Occupational Therapy For Children on (08) 8410 4522.

 

25 thoughts on “Parent’s Pencil Grasp Gripping Guide

  1. I am a teacher and very interested in finding a new way of holding a pencil. Noone is using the “correct” pencil grip. I have heard of an alternative, but cant find any literature on it.
    I was wondering if you can help.
    Alvia

    • I’m a teacher too and I have found some amazing pencil grips which encourage the final stage of gripping a pencil. They are unlike anything I’ve seen. You have to put your thumb on the star and the rest of the fingers naturally fall into place. I can’t remember for the life of me which brand they are but if you search ‘pencil grip star thumb’ it should come up!

  2. Thank you very much for your helpful information! the details were a very good reminder for me as a kindergarten and pre-kindergarten teacher in WA. This info was exactly what I was looking for to help out the parents of my students. (I gave them your website address also)
    Thanks again! OT’s are brilliant!

  3. Great piece of work. I’m interested to know what you think about older children 9,10,11 that have developed an unhelpful grip, thumb wrap over for example. I’m working on the prerequisite skills, developing strength, mobility, finger isolation, manipulation etc etc etc but the grip is stubbornly remaining the same. At what point would you give up trying to change the grip if at all even though it is not at all functional. What would you do in therapy?

    • Given each case is different, and without knowing the child, it is difficult to provide any specific advice. As such, advice provided is of a general nature.

      By the age of 9,10,11 – most children have developed a pencil grip that is likely to remain with them for life. As mentioned, the dynamic tripod grip is the most effective grip, which develops with age. By age 7, if a grip is still the same, and is impacting on function, e.g. reduced hand endurance, reduced writing speed, reduced letter formation etc. then it is far more difficult to ‘correct’ a grip at that stage.

      Whilst you do not want to ‘give-up’ trying to work on pencil grip, there is a limit. By ages 9-11, if a pencil grip is somewhat supporting the child’s needs, but not an ideal grip, looking at alternaitve communication methods could be a better strategy, i.e further typing skills. Trying to correct a child’s grip at that late stage will often be met with frustration from the child and a further lack of desire to engage in fine motor tasks.

      In therapy, we might look at trialling tripod pencil grip supports, which can be place on pencils, to provide a visual guide of where to place fingers, and these can be trialled from ages 5-7. In addition, continuing to look at the underlying difficulties leading to pencil grip, such as tactile perception, dexterity, finger isolation, intrinsic hand muscle strength, endurance and arm/shoulder stability are equally important.

      However, pencil skills go far beyond the pencil, and even the hand. There may be more than just pencil grip difficulties. There may be touch perception/ body awareness difficulties at play, which can impact how a child holds a pencil? Often there are many reasons that pencil grips are difficult for children – e.g. sensory processing – as such OT assessment and intervention would look at identifying and addressing a number of areas. Until you undertake an OT assessment, it is difficult to know all the details.

  4. Thanks for the helpful info. I have some experience with this since I used to teach kindergarten for 10 years. I have one student right now that I am homeschooling who is using a tripod grip, however she is constantly raising up her pointer finger as shown in the quadripod picture. I already have her practicing lots of fine motor activities. I have already tried using a regular pencil grip. Is there anything else I can do?

    • Without knowing this child, the advice I can give is only of a general nature. From what you have described, it may be useful to try a ‘cross over’ pencil grip, to encourage a tripod grip. By the sounds of it she is able to perform that grip, but may be unaware of her fourth finger climbing back onto the pencil. Another idea is to place a small ball (e.g. marble, cotton ball) in the last two fingers to continue to provide something for those two fingers to do, so the fourth finger doesn’t become part of the grip. Continuing to try activities with pinch grips (turning nuts and bolts, picking up small beads) can further assist with strengthening and creating a greater hand awareness to those fingers required for a tripod grip.

      • I have been a quadrupod gripper all my life and have had numerous teachers try to change it. I had the best handwriting in the class and then went on to get an Illustration degree. Fine motor skills are my THING. Now, I design calligraphy based illustrations and chalk boards for a living.

        I don’t think it is important to correct a child. I just found it rude and unhelpful, especially considering that there was nothing wrong with my handwriting. Why can’t we leave them alone?

        Is there any evidence that this impacts their learning?

        I can write both ways, but still prefer to the quadrupod method.

        • Hi Emma,

          I think this is a fair point. For most children, a dynamic tripod grip is always going to be the most desirable grip, given it is the most advanced of the pencil grips. As such, there is always the aim to promote this grip, as physiologically and anatomically it produces the most accurate, controlled and least fatiguing results.

          However, I have worked with a number of children who develop a dynamic quadrapod grip which is very functional. This is where I always draw the line; if it is functional and is not causing great fatigue – leave the grip alone. For us, function and learning go hand in hand. If a child can develop a grip that is functional, then they’re always going to have greater success in fine motor skills. You are a clear example of someone who found a functional grip, who managed to adapt to suit your needs and achieve academic success!

          Sometimes it can be more disadvantageous to drastically try and change a grip (especially when most pencil grips are well formed by around 6-7 years of age). In my view, if a child’s handwriting is legible, well spaced and the there are age appropriate foundations for handwriting, then the grip should remain.

          From an OT perspective, we are always wanting to look at function. If there is excessive fatigue, writing is illegible or there are difficulties with foundation fine motor skills (e.g. finger isolation, dexterity) then we will always try to work on supporting a more effective an functional way to write. If this means adapting the grip, then we will do so, however this is not the only component.

          Unfortunately, handwriting and pencil grips are a big topic of discussion, and I don’t want to write an essay! I think, as mentioned in this post, that it is important that people appreciate the ‘natural development’ of fine motor skills and pencil grips. As such, a dynamic tripod grip is often going to be more ‘mature’ than a quadrpod grip, however it doesn’t mean a quadrapod grip cannot be successful and functional.

          Thanks for your comments. I hope my reply sheds some light on your how we try to approach pencil grips!

  5. This is interesting information. My son is 3 3/4 years old and uses what I’m pretty sure is the fisted grip when drawing and writing. Though, now that I look at the pictures above I need to watch him again to see exactly what his grip is like.He seems to be left-handed and I wonder if that has any influence on development of pencil grips. I haven’t been to worried about it as I figured as he gets older, he’ll develop other ways of holding the pencil. I’m concerned though because I met with his teacher today who told me I need to “insist that he holds his pencil with three fingers” and that she has to “remind him all the time” and he’ll do it for a minute before switching back to the fisted grip. We live in Spain, so kids start school fairly young (at three years old—and my son was actually 2 3/4 when he started due to the cutoff dates they use here). To me, he seems too young to be insisting that he holds a pencil a certain way. He loves to draw and has been practicing writing numbers in school with great enthusiasm. I would hate to discourage this by insisting he hold a pencil a certain way before he is developmentally ready to do so. My husband participated in a workshop one day in the classroom and he noticed that the other kids kept telling my son that he was holding his pencil wrong. He’s one of the youngest kids in the class. I’m worried that he’s going to develop an aversion to writing and drawing with all this attention to pencil grip. Just wondering if I’m off base in the way I’m thinking? Thanks in advance for any thoughts you can offer.

    • This is tricky Allison. From a developmental perspective, the grips do tend to follow the above patterns. Rather than focus so much on pencil grip per se, I would certainly look at ensuring he has developed a hand dominance. By this I mean try a number of writing, drawing, colouring etc. activities that use what sounds like his emerging dominant hand, Left, and consolidate this.

      I agree with the aversion to writing if he is constantly discouraged. Continue also to work on foundation fine motor skills such as dexterity, finger isolation, hand strength and endurance to create a fun and supportive way to develop ‘good hands and fingers’ to further support pencil grip development in the future.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I will try to find some fine motor skill activities that can help my son develop a basis for a good pencil grip. If you have any suggestions for good websites to check out that illustrate these types activities, please feel free to pass them on! Thanks again!

  6. Thank you for your very useful information.
    I currently support 4-5 year old children in developing fine and gross motor skills. While I am making provision for their development in the classroom, with your permission, I would like to draw on your web information, to compile an information sheet for parents so they can support their children at home.
    I would be grateful if you could advise (as soon as possible), if this is acceptable to you. Many thanks.
    Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    Kind regards
    Mel

    • Hello Mel. Happy for you to share our information. If you could also make mention that you sourced the information from the OTFC blog, or have our logo on the document, then that would also be appreciated.
      Glad the information could be of use to you!

  7. I’m a Kindy teacher.I have always children to use large crayons and thick markers to draw and write with at this age. I was disappointed to see that thin wind up crayons, and lead pencils had been asked for in the children’s stationery packs this year. At what age is it appropriate to use these items. I think it’s too early for children who are just turning 4 but I also feel compelled to use them as they have been paid for. I have always had a couple of containers in the room to be used if children are ready.Parents were also asked to provide their own scissors, left or right and I was concerned as lots of children haven’t developed a dominant hand at this age. Your thoughts please ?

    • Hi Maria. This is just my personal view, and may not necessarily be shared by all at OTFC.
      I think sometimes kindergarten settings can ‘rush’ children into fine motor skills. While it is important to promote these skills in a supportive environment, only having thin crayons and lead pencils I don’t think properly allows for the wide range of confidences in fine motor skills. I don’t know if there is a perfect ageto use thin crayons and pencils, as some children appear more able to do so at a younger age, than others. I have always been an advocate of exploration early on, and once a child has developed fine motor confidence, a hand preference, appropriate pre-writing skills, supporting foundation skills for fine motor tasks (e.g. shoulder stability, postural control, dexterity), then you can begin to increase the fine motor challenge (e.g. smaller pencils, fine writing points). As for scissors, hand dominance is always a hard one and I think it is important the kindy have Left and Right handed tools, to support natural and emerging dominance for all children.

  8. Hello and thank you for this wonderful information.
    I have a 4.5 year old who uses the Quadripod grip or 4 finger grip, given his age should I be manipulating his fingers into the static tripod grip or leaving his grip alone?

    • Hello Lucy. Firstly, I would certainly be encouraging lots of pinch grip activities (e.g. picking up small beads in putty, spinning tops, peg work etc.) this will further promote finger dexterity and finger isolation, particularly of the first three digits – required for an appropriate tripod grip. Secondly, when engaging in pencil/texta activities try and use thicker textas/crayons/pencils and encourage a more ‘tripod’ based grip. Using visual guides (e.g. stickers where the thumb and fingers need to go) can further support this. Be patient with this and also not too ‘overbearing’, as you don’t want to discourage your child from engaging in fine motor activities.

  9. It is sooo good to read your information. I am an OT turned Primary School Art teacher K3-2nd grades. I encourage the classroom teachers to use thicker pencils etc. I use thick drawing pencils for all my students. It just puts everyone on the same page, especially for the boys, and seems they thrive with it. I teach at a very academic school and while they do a great job with appropriate pencil grip, they continue to think….”small hands = small(thin)” pencils starting age 5. The four year olds use thick pencils , they just do tooooo much writing. They also reallly push printing at age 4. I love your info included in your Pencil Grip article regarding…arm,wrist finger movements as it relates to development of writing. Thank you!!!!!!!!! Jackie

  10. Hi ,
    M mother of 2 n half year daughter.
    She used to grip her pencil in static tripod grip or sumtimes dynamic tripod grip . I dnt learn her how to hold or grip.
    She took only two practice time from me(hardly half an hour )..on 3rd day she learnt…she knows how to draw standing sleeping slanting nd curvy lines. (m surprised)…she begins to write alphabet And numeric 2 wdout any pressure…..my question is m so scared about her writing in future coz she put lil pressure on paper while writing sumtimes thin nd blurry lines…nd second thing about her finger arms nd shoulder muscles coz she is under weight nd so lean her finger nd arms r so fragile .m trying to stop her bt she wants to write independntly …m scared sumwhere it may harm her soft nd lean finget nd hands.
    Sorry for writing mistakes….

    • Hello Sonam, it is pleasing to see your daughter so keen to engage in writing tasks at such an early age. In response to your first question, if you feel her writing is light or she puts little pressure, then you can try and use a darker pencil (i.e. 2B) or you can encourage her to draw over embossed stencils, so she has to push harder on the page to get a result. In response to your second question, you can work on activities to support her upper limb strength and postural control (e.g. animal walks, wheelbarrow walks) and tasks that involve finger strength and endurance (e.g. twisting nuts and bolts, working with putty or playdough, playing games with pegs). I hope some of this helps.

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