Guest Post: Ten tips for helping children with their pencil grasp and handwriting

How a child holds onto their pencil is often a focus of assessment in early year’s education, and marker of maturity. By the time a child is 5-6 years old, it is expected that they will be using a ‘dynamic’ tripod grasp on their pencil. This is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of pencil grasps and something that all children are expected to achieve. However, not all children take to it according to the curriculum’s timeline. In this post, Kim Griffin, founder of Griffin Occupational Therapy will give you ten tips to help children with developing their pencil grasp.

Tip 1 – Check the child is ready to hold a pencil!

Firstly, a child won’t have developed the hand skills to hold a pencil until they are between 12-18 months of age. If the child has motor skill delays, e.g. they were late to sit or crawl, it may take them longer to reach this stage. At this time it is normal for them to have a gross pencil grasp and hold the pencil with their whole hand. Secondly, the child needs to be showing an interest in mark making and holding a pencil.

Most children are not developmentally ready to hold a pencil until they are two years old. When you think about it, this is understandable given that a child won’t have developed the hand skills to do so until they are between 12-18 months of age. If the child has motor skill delays, e.g. they were late to sit or crawl, it may take them longer to reach this stage. So, before beginning to work with a child on pencil grasp, first consider whether they have the hand skills necessary. Secondly, and just as importantly, make sure they are showing an interest in mark making and holding a pencil.

If they do not meet these two criteria, they need to spend more time in doing play based fine motor skills. This could include cause and effect toys, stacking, filling and dumping, and messy play. Focus on engaging the children in these activities before moving on to tip 2

Tip 2 – Work on finger and hand or fine motor skills first

In order for a child to develop a mature pencil grasp they need to have well developed fine motor skills. They need to be able point their index finger and pick up small items like a raisin. They should be able to play with Duplo, putting it together and pulling it apart. Activities like building with blocks, playing in the sand pit and threading all help to develop the child’s fine motor skills. This helps to prepare them to hold a pencil.

If you need specific ideas for fine motor skill activities, please visit the Griffin OT motor skills page

Tip 3 – Try finger crayons to help develop pencil grasp

One thing that can help children to develop their pencil grasp is finger crayons. These are designed for young children. They are great as they help to develop the arches of child’s hand. They also help the child to learn to hold onto the pencil with their fingers.

Tip 4 – Mark making and colouring comes before handwriting

There are many steps required before a child is ready to write. Whilst handwriting is the long term goal of using a pencil, younger children need a variety of experiences with drawing and colouring before they start to write. It is important that the child is colouring, and as they get older trying to stay within the lines. This helps them to develop the skills needed to write on a line. Mazes and dot to dots are also great as they help to develop pencil control.

The child should be drawing pictures and they also need to draw shapes. Vertical, horizontal and oblique (\/) lines and circles form the foundations for all letters. Children need to be able to draw these shapes first before they start to write. They don’t need to always be drawing these with a pencil either! You can paint, draw in sand, in the steam on the mirror or in shaving foam. These days you can also draw on tablets and smart boards. Be creative and have fun!

Tip 5 – Use action songs to help with finger and hand awareness

Another great way to help children to develop the fine motor skills required for their pencil grasp is action songs. Songs like ‘Where is Thumbkin?, ‘How Many Fingers on One Hand?’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ are great. You can also use counting songs like ‘Five Little Monkeys’, ‘Five Little Ducklings’, and ‘Five Little Speckled Frogs’ and count using the fingers during the song. The song ‘Crocodile Snap’, is also written to help children identify the fingers used to hold a pencil. Teachers and parents can then remind children to use their ‘crocodile fingers’ when holding their pencil. There are also classroom wall posters available on the GriffinOT website to use as a reminder.

Tip 6 – Try short pencils

For children age four and older, short pencils can also be a good option. This is especially true if the child is still holding onto the pencil with their whole hand. The easiest way to make short pencils is to saw regular sized pencils into 4cm (2”) lengths.

Tip 7 – There are alternatives to the dynamic tripod pencil grasp!

The reason the dynamic tripod is championed is because it provides the most amount of pencil control for the least amount of muscle effort. This helps to facilitate speed of writing. When using a dynamic tripod the child will have their thumb, index and middle fingers on the pencil. Their little and ring finger will tuck away. They will also control the pencil movement from their fingers. In reality however, it is common to see a variation of this grasp in adults and children. Two grasps that are identified as being mature options include the ‘quadruped grasp’ and ‘modified tripod grasp’.

Quadruped pencil grasp

With a quadruped pencil grasp the child will hold onto the pencil with four fingers rather than three. They will still tuck their little finger away. The movement needs to come from the fingers for this grasp to be mature.

Modified tripod pencil grasp

Whilst this lesser known grip does look and feel quite strange, it is a good alternative for some children. Unlike a pencil grip, it can be used on any pen or pencil, rather than needing to remember and or find a pencil grip. It can also be particularly effective for children who use a ‘thumb wrap grasp’ if they are able to change to it.

The child needs to put the pencil between their index and middle fingers. They then curl these fingers and their thumb around onto the pencil, which feels very strange when they first try it! However, it takes the weight of the pencil, so for children with low tone it can be a good option. It also secures the pencil, so, if you let go the pencil, for the most part, stays in place.

Tip 8 – Some children may need a bit more help to develop their pencil grasp

Even after using the above supports, some children need more help to develop their pencil grasp. You might see grasps such as a thumb wrap, or a child that still holds their pencil with all of their fingers. These grasps can sometimes cause children pain and often make their writing slower.

Thumb wrap

A very common grasp is a thumb wrap. This is where the child starts off with a tripod but their thumb quickly wraps around their pencil and fingers. You may also see a thumb tuck, where the child tucks their thumb in, under their fingers instead of wrapping it over the top.

Immature fingers along shaft

For a child older than five this is a very immature grasp. Here the child spreads all of their fingers along the shaft of the pencil and controls the pencil with their little finger. The child may also hook their index finger right around the top of the pencil. This grasp is frequently seen in children with low tone and hypermobility.

Helping these children

Occupational therapists can advise on specific ideas and strategies to help children with their pencil grasp. The Griffin OT Supporting Pencil Grasp Development book and online programme is also a useful resource for teachers or parents helping these children. The programme provides fine motor activities and worksheets to help children to develop their pencil grasp and control. It is suitable for children from 3 ½ years who are starting to hold their pencil. And it is helpful for older children who have an immature pencil grasp.

Tip 9 – A pencil grip may not always help

Pencil grips are typically the first thing that is given to a child who is struggling with the pencil grasp. As an occupational therapist, they are typically my last recommendation. Frequently I have seen children with pencil grips that have their fingers on them incorrectly. Or they are holding the pencil above or below the grip and are not actually using it. The first thing I would recommend is trying the tips above to ensure the child has adequately developed fine motor skills. Next, the modified tripod grasp discussed above could be tried. Finally, you can try a pencil grip.

Tip 10 – If you are using a pencil grip ensure you monitor it

However, if you are using a pencil grip with a child, it is absolutely essential to ensure that you are monitoring it. It is not ok to just give a child a grip and expect it to magically work. You need to regularly check whether the grip is being used correctly. It is also important to check that it is helping.

To learn more about pencil grips, including how to monitor them you can visit the Griffin OT pencil grip page. On this page Kim reviews the huge variety of pencil grips that are available and discusses their pros and cons.

If you would like to learn more about the developmental stages of pencil grasp you may be interested in visiting Griffin OT’s dedicated pencil grasp page. On this page we discuss how pencil grasp develops and also give further ideas on how to help.

Don’t forget you can purchase our book Supporting Pencil Grasp Development on our website.  Also if you’re more of a visual learner then you might find the online version more suitable.  This includes education and instructional videos of how to use the programme with children.  Please see the website for further details.

And if you would like ‘Crocodile Snap’ posters for your classroom you can also visit our website for more information.

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