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: ‘Splayed’ 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. Sometimes this can also have a fourth finger involved, and be termed a Quadrapod grip.
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.