As a child scribbles and draws, they transition how they hold their writing tool from age to age. The development of the writing grip in young children follows a predictable course:
At around 1-2 years, children commonly begin by holding a writing tool with a primitive grip (also known as a fisted or cylindrical grasp).
This is when they hold a marker in a closed fist with movement coming from the shoulder. This makes it easy for a child to scribble in circular, vertical, and horizontal motions.
At ages 2-3, a palmar (or pronated) grasp develops, where the child holds the writing tool with their fingers pointing towards the paper.
As the child’s balance and trunk stability improves, movement from the shoulder reduces and more comes from the elbow. This allows for more refined drawings of vertical and horizontal lines, as well as circles.
By 4 years, the child should be holding a pencil using three or four fingers with movement from the wrist and not the fingers (static grasp). This is basically how they will hold a pen or pencil into adulthood.
Between 4-6 years, this static grasp evolves into a dynamic grasp where movement is refined at the wrist and fingers, with limited elbow or shoulder movement. This allows for the ability to color within the lines as well as draw crosses, diagonal lines, squares, and triangles.
Notice I did not mention the word, “tripod” which has been written all over texts regarding handwriting grasp. This is when there are three fingers controlling the pencil. To be more specific, the writing tool is pinched between the thumb and index finger while resting on the middle finger.
Teachers, and even my own profession of Occupational Therapy, stressed the importance of a dynamic tripod grasp. However, researchers found that a variety of pencil grasps are used among typical children and adults. Thus, several mature pencil grasps have been accepted as alternatives to the traditional dynamic tripod grasps.
When should we worry about a child’s writing grasp?
If it hurts – If a child does not have the appropriate strength or control when writing, they may lock their joints for stability. This can result in tightness in the muscles, fatigue in the hand, and also reduce their writing speed.
If they get tired – If a child does not have an appropriate writing grasp (let’s say using a primitive grasp to write their name on lined paper), they use more energy engaging the gross motor muscles rather than the fine motor. This will lead to fatigue.
If their handwriting is sloppy – A child may have an inappropriate pencil grasp due to underlying issues. If there’s difficulties discriminating touch, the child may not be able to determine how much force to use when they are writing. If a child lacks stability in the shoulder or elbow when writing, they will use more effort to complete a written task. Pencil grasp, just like handwriting itself, is a product of many developmental motor skills and sensory systems working together.
What can I do to help?
- Go to the playground. I know I have suggested this numerous times, but it really does help develop the motor skills necessary for writing.
- Weightbearing activities. They help with developing strength and stability in the trunk and shoulders to allow for refined movements in the wrist and hand.
- Scribble and draw. The more they do this for fun, the more they will play with grasps that are more efficient for them. Experiment with different angles, surfaces, and writing utensils.
- Play with resistive textures. Playing with substances such as Play Doh or Silly Putty build intrinsic muscle strength in the hands and fingers needed to hold a pencil.
- Reduce the screen time. Instead, have them play with hands-on toys that encourage grasp and hand manipulation. Think Legos, blocks, board games, and cards.
As a child develops and grows, their skills build on each other to complete complex tasks and activities. Pencil grasp is one of those skills that allows them to write and create with a tool. As your child’s grip changes from age to age, check in to make sure they are scribbling smoothly and comfortably.
“Fine Motor Development 0 to 6 years”, Skill Builders Online.
Case-Smith, J. (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children, 5th ed, pg. 589-590.
Donica, D.K, Massengill, M. and Gooden, M.J. (2018). A Quantitative Study on the Relationship between Grasp and Handwriting Legibility: Does Grasp Really Matter? Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools & Early Intervention. 11(4). 411-425.
“Poor Pencil Grip Kids”, Firesara.com.