Why I don’t teach my children how to hold their pencil!

This might sound like a rash statement to some people, especially seeing though I am an OT and I correct children’s poor pencil grasps for a living.

But if children need to be ‘taught’ how to hold the pencil it is likely that they are missing either fine motor skills or functional gross motor skills that are preventing them from holding the pencil in a functional manner. Hence I work on those underlying skills in my children – I don’t ‘teach’ them the correct pencil grasp.

The correct pencil grasp is not a “created” skill – it is a natural progression that should just happen in a child’s development!

Children will move through a series of developmentally appropriate pencil grasps before they get to the “ideal” – ‘Dynamic Tripod Grasp’. These progressive grasps are important for development and shouldn’t be discouraged. Children know their own body and their ability, they are holding the pencil the way they are for a very good reason!

These reasons are usually based on their muscles (or lack of) – shoulder stability, core stability, arm strength, finger isolation and finger strength are all required for a functional and appropriate grasp.

When you ‘teach’ a child how to hold the pencil, before they are functionally/developmentally ready, you are risking them forming bad habits which are hard to change. This is because the child’s hands and upper body lack the appropriate muscles needed to hold the pencil in the ‘ideal’ way. When this happens the child will adapt the ‘ideal’ grasp to help them function which in turn usually makes it an inefficient grasp and they often use larger muscle groups which increase their pain and fatigue as they get older.

The developmentally appropriate grasps children may progress through include:

Palmer Grasp – this grasp is tied in with the reflex we are born with called the “palmer grasp.” This is where the object is in the palm of the hand and the fingers close over the top. This is one of the first pencil grasps children use. It helps them understand what to do with the pencil/crayon/paint brush and gain control. Children who continue to use this grasp for a prolonged period of time tend to lack finger isolation & strength as well as upper body strength. It is also possible that the reflex they were born with is still active within their hand.

Digital Grasp – This grasp is identifiable by all 5 finger tips touching the pencil. In this case children have progressed in their fine motor skills, however they still do not have enough strength or control in their fingers to allow the smaller fingers to be removed from the pencil (which is seen in the more mature grasps).

Tripod or Quadrupod Grasp – These are the most common ‘functional’ grasps children and adult’s use – as their names describe – the “tripod” grasp has 3 fingers on the pencil and the “Quadrupod” grasp has 4 fingers on the pencil.
There are functional and inappropriate versions of both these grasps, which I won’t go into in this blog, but please remember that there are inefficient versions of both these grasps so don’t assume it is ‘ok’ if you child has 3 or 4 fingers on the pencil – look for a circle shape between the index finger and thumb (this is called an “open web space” which is essential for a functional grasp).

So how do you help your child develop a “good” grasp naturally?

The best way to help your child develop an efficient and effective pencil grasp is to develop their fine motor skills and upper body muscles. Here are some great ways to help encourage this development:

Crawl, Climb, Colour and Coins – These are my 4 favourite C’s!

Crawling is one of the most important developmental stages of a child’s first year. Many people down play the importance of crawling as it is “just a means to move before walking – if they can walk why should they crawl” This is a whole other topic in itself but without going to in depth – crawling is an important stage for integrating reflexes, developing the muscles in the hand, upper limb, core and neck as well as helping other visual and body development. If your child didn’t crawl as a 9 month old consider playing games that involve crawling to help them develop these skills.

Climbing not only builds muscles in the arms but it also develops the muscles in the core and hands. The process of climbing helps with motor planning and problem solving as well as spatial awareness. Climbing usually uses the similar body movements to crawling (opposite arm to leg) which helps develop a child’s midline crossing skills and other important neurological development.

Colouring is experience with a pencil, it is a non-threatening and enjoyable. Colouring promotes picking up and putting down of pencils which helps children find the grasp that is comfortable for them. As they pick up and put down pencils they will trial different grasps until they find the one that works for them at that time. This will help to develop the muscles in their hand so they can continue to progress to a functional grasp.

Coins are a great fine motor activity – they are small enough to hold multiple coins in your hand, they are heavy enough for you to control and develop muscles using, they are functional and usually motivating for children. There are lots of games you can play with coins to help develop the muscles too, which keeps it interesting and fun! These include: putting them in a money box, counting them as you pick them up with one hand, building coin towers, making dinosaur spines in a play-doh dinosaur, races to pick up as many coins as you can in 20 seconds, the list can go on and on and on…

Get creative and use these 4 C’s to develop your child’s muscles so they can improve their pencil grasp rather than hitting your head against a brick wall trying to change their grasp verbally without improving the reason why they can’t hold it like that in the first place!

If you are concerned about your child’s pencil grasp or fine motor skills, call us and book an OT assessment.

Please Note:

Developmental ages – A child should have a functional grasp (dynamic tripod grasp or similar) by the time they start school or soon after. You can see children as young as 2 with a functional grasp if their fine motor skills and muscles have developed well.

(Please remember coins are a choking hazard for young children.)