Pencil Grasp Development
Children start using their hands to grasp objects at a very young age. How a child grasps most of the objects they come in contact with usually isn’t what a parent or teacher would bother to think about; but when it comes to grasping an object like a pencil, it becomes necessary for the caregiver to pay attention and, if necessary, provide some guidance to ensure the child develops proper pencil grasp/grip – a skill best learnt and mastered at a young age.
Stages of Pencil Grasp Development
Starting from when they are around the age of 12 months children go through several distinct stages of pencil grasp development, up till the age of, say, six. These stages are what we shall now discuss to learn what occurs at each, but while we do so bear in mind that as each child is different, your child may go through each stage at a pace slightly different from that of their peers.
Stage One: Palmar Supinate Grasp
When they are about 12 – 15 months old a young toddler starts to hold a pencil with all their fingers wrapped around it, forming a fist; this is the supinate palmar grasp which is regarded as primitive. Note that “palmar” here means the palm or inside part of the hand, and “supinate” means palm facing up or forwards.
Using this type of fisted grasp the toddler is able to make whole arm movements from the shoulder, and this usually results to light scribbles.
Stage Two: Digital Pronate Grasp
In the digital pronate grasp stage the child holds the pencil with all their fingers and thumb, but points them down towards its base, and positions the wrist in such a way that the palm faces down towards the writing surface (which is what “pronate” means).
The movement that results when a child holds their pencil in this way mostly comes from the elbow; the shoulder remains more or less stable, and copying circles, vertical or horizontal lines becomes easier for the child who at this stage – like in the previous – would also prefer to work on a vertical surface.
The digital pronate grasp manifests around age one and half to three, and is a common grasp as well for self-feeding.
Stage Three: Four Finger and Thumb Grasp
At about three to four years of age a child begins to hold their pencil in an almost vertical position with the four fingers placed on the shaft of the pencil and opposite the thumb – this is the four-finger grasp.
Here the writing movement mainly occurs from the wrist, with the elbow moving less. This type of pencil grasp enables children produce crossed or zigzag lines, and draw simple shapes such as human and animal shapes on a horizontal surface.
Stage Four: Static Tripod and/or Quadrupod Grasp
A child will progress to the static tripod or quadrupod grasp when they are around four to five, and this is regarded as an almost correct grasp. The static tripod grasp involves the thumb, index and middle fingers, usually with the pencil pinched in between the first two, and the third finger tucked behind or to the side of them to form a tripod.
The quadrupod grasp adds the fourth finger, on which the first three fingers holding the pencil are then tucked or supported on.
In terms of movement, the fingers remain static, but the wrist and forearm (which float above the writing surface) are used to move the pencil. With the static tripod or quadrupod grasp a child is able to draw shapes such as squares, triangles and circles.
Stage Five: Dynamic Tripod Grasp
When they get to the stage of using the dynamic tripod grasp around age five to six a child has developed the most appropriate or mature pencil grasp which allows for more accurate and efficient pencil movement.
In this type of tripod grasp the thumb and index fingers are used to pinch the pencil (similar to the static tripod grasp), with the middle finger tucked behind them for more support, but the fourth and fifth fingers are tucked into the palm of the hand instead of being placed next to the first three.
This tripod grasp is regarded as dynamic because the fingertips move back and forth, while the forearm or wrist hardly moves as the child’s hand will be resting on the writing surface. A child at this final stage of pencil grasp is ready for letter formation practice.
Some Activities for Improving Pencil Grasp
You can help your child correct their awkward pencil grasp and develop either the ideal dynamic tripod grasp or the equally acceptable quadruped one by getting them to engage in fine and gross motor activities. These activities help to build their fine as well as gross motor strength, resulting to fingers, wrists, hands, arms and shoulders that are strong enough to promote fluent and easy writing at the appropriate time.
Some of the activities are:
Gather a variety of objects that are squeezable, such as cloth pegs, tweezers, ice tongs and clips, and then get your child to practice squeezing, and using them to pick up other objects.
Pulling and Pushing
Have your child constantly play with toys or household items that can be pushed or pulled, including trucks and wagons, doll strollers, walkers, and doors.
Get some playdough or theraputty and let your child roll, knead, pull, pinch, flatten, and create all sorts of shapes with it.
You can cut pieces of scrap paper or old newspapers and have your child crumple them up with the fingers on their two hands until they are as small and tight as they can get. As soon as they can do this easily, have them do the crumpling with only one hand – especially their dominant one.
Other Precursors of Developmentally Appropriate Writing
Pencil grasp is but one building block of developmentally appropriate writing, and the cultivation of other pre-writing skills are necessary for a child to become writing-ready at the kindergarten stage.
Let’s consider some other pre-writing skills which should be developed alongside pencil grasp to ensure a child’s handwriting readiness.
- Hand and finger strength: several fine motor activities can help a child develop the ability to exert force in opposition to resistance using their hands and fingers; this ability translates to the muscle power required for moving the pencil in a controlled way.
- Upper body strength: The strength of the upper body, especially the shoulders, need to be enhanced through gross motor activities as it provides the stability that makes controlled hand movement and good pencil control possible.
- Object manipulation: being able to manipulate and use everyday tools – such as scissors, cutlery, hair comb and toothbrush – skillfully.
- Visual perception: letters, numbers, and similar visual images have to be interpreted and made sense of by the child’s brain.
- Hand-to-eye coordination: being able to guide and direct the hands while performing a task such as writing using processed visual information.
- Hand Separation: the ability to separate the hand into two sides – the precision side (thumb, index and middle finger) and the power side (ring and pinky fingers) – while performing specific activities.
To a significant extent, all these skills and more contribute to the ability of a child to hold as well as use a pencil properly when it’s time for them to start writing.