Is there only one perfect way to hold a pencil? No! What’s important is function. If your child’s grasp looks funky, but they can draw or write without their hand getting cramped or tired, it’s okay to let it go and stop nagging them. It can be very hard to change grasp patterns, especially in older children.
If you have a younger child or your child does complain of discomfort while writing or coloring, keep reading for ideas on how to improve their pencil grasp!
Children begin holding a writing utensil (such as a pencil) around 12 months of age. From 12-18 months, they tend to use a primitive grasp called a palmar grasp. It is called a palmar grasp because the child holds the utensil with their entire palm (with the thumb facing up).
By 2-3 years, children start to turn their palm down with their thumb toward the paper but continue to keep all 5 fingers on the utensil (called the digital pronate grasp).
Around ages 3-4 years, children will use a grasp much closer to that of an adult, where they use 3-4 fingers on the pencil with the thumb facing up. This grasp is called a “static” tripod (3 fingers) or quadrupod (4 fingers) grasp because the fingers remain stationary while the upper arm moves in order to write or draw.
By 5 or 6, the grasp becomes “dynamic” where the movement is initiated by the fingers while the rest of the arm remains mostly stationary. It is common for some people to continue using a quadrupod grasp and while there is some debate about whether this is okay, research supports that it is!
Alternative Grasp Patterns
Some people develop other grasp patterns and the list of possibilities is very long! The most common alternative pencil grasp pattern is a thumb wrap grasp. This is when the child starts with a tripod or quadrupod grasp and wraps their thumb tightly around the pencil, so the thumb crosses over the other fingers.
Children tend to use a thumb wrap grasp if they have hand weakness, unstable joints, or sensory processing challenges that make it harder to feel the pencil in their hand.
There are many other ways people hold pencils and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Occupational therapists care about function. As long as a child’s writing is legible and they are comfortable during writing and drawing activities, we are happy.
If your child is young (like under the age of 6 or 7), then it may be worth trying to intervene on how they hold a pencil. If your child is older and has already had quite a bit of experience writing, their grasp pattern is likely pretty deeply ingrained already. This doesn’t mean it is impossible to change, but it is very, very challenging.
The older we are, the harder it is to break our habits (but I don’t have to tell you that, do I…?).
If a child experiences a lot of discomfort with writing, I would at least attempt to make some changes (or at least some solid adaptations) to help them.
Factors that Impact Handwriting
Strength and Posture
Other reasons for challenges with handwriting can be related to difficulty with upper body strength and posture. In order to write properly, children need to be able to maintain their body in an upright position for a prolonged period of time. They need to have strong core and shoulder stability to have the endurance to sit and write.
This is one reason why occupational therapists advocate for the importance of crawling, as it provides a great strengthening opportunity for the bigger muscles of the body. Upper body strength and control is needed in order to support the smaller muscles (such as those needed for writing) to work well.
You can use crawling to address overall body strength, even with older children. A pop-up tunnel like this one is a fun and engaging way to encourage kids of all ages to crawl.
Technology & Handwriting
Many occupational therapists have noticed an increase in handwriting difficulty with the rise of technology. The more time a child spends sitting stationary using devices like a tablet, the less time they spend building body strength, coordination, and motor skills.
On the flip side, because technology is ever present, the need for a proper pencil grasp and legible handwriting will likely continue to decline. But we never know what hobbies our children will pick up or what career they will land on as adults. It’s important to help them develop all of their skills, so anything is possible for them.
What if your child becomes really interested in drawing or painting? They will need a good grasp for these activities.
Activities to Improve Handwriting
If a child is struggling to develop a mature grasp pattern, I recommend drawing with short 1-2” crayons, beading activities, writing on a vertical surface (such as an easel chalkboard like this one), and practicing cutting. All of these activities help to reinforce using 3-4 fingers.
I love these tweezers from Learning Resources because they have a grooved spot for 3 fingers to help reinforce a tripod grasp. You could have your child pick up cotton balls or pom poms during crafting. The classic game Operation is another fun way to use tweezers!
Encouraging your child to participate in other fine motor activities like puzzles, lacing, buttoning, and playing games with small pieces also help to develop overall fine motor coordination.
If your child needs to work on strengthening their hand, check out our article Hand Strengthening Activities for Kids.
Adaptations to Improve Handwriting
It is typically best for young writers to use thicker pencils and writing utensils because it is easier for their small hands to hold properly. Ticonderoga makes a great option for this. You can make the switch to a regular #2 pencil around age 7.
For some children, a triangular shape may help reinforce use of a tripod grasp. If this is not enough support, there are many types of pencil grips you can try.
The Crossover Pencil Grip is my all-around favorite. It’s pretty good at gently forcing fingers into tripod position and it is comfortable to use.
Older children also tend to do well with the Mini Grips, which often do an even better job at promoting a good grasp. The challenge with them is that because they are small, kids can easily ignore them and revert to their preferred grasp even with the grip in place. So only use them if your child is good at following instructions and can keep their fingers in position.
Writing on a slant board like this one can also help to promote a mature grasp pattern. You can even try using an empty 2 to 3 inch empty binder under their paper to see if a slant helps.
Many people write with an alternative grasp pattern and do just fine! If you think your child needs to make some adjustments, I hope you found some good strategies to try!
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