By: Jessica Hanna MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA
With kids back in school, drawings, coloring pages, and written work will make their way from the classroom to backpacks and eventually to the fridge for everyone to admire.
From infancy to adulthood, we all hit many milestones in life. Some milestones stand out more than others, but the little ones are no less important. The ability to hold a writing tool is a milestone that moves through various stages from infancy through adulthood. If you get the chance to view and capture each stage along a child’s development, it’s genuinely fascinating!
So, what’s the big deal about the stages involved in holding a writing tool, such as a crayon, marker, or pencil? These stages are the foundation for developing the tiny muscles and arches of the human hand, creating strength and endurance during a writing/drawing activity, and developing stability to manipulate the writing tool to use it the intended way. As humans, we all move through these stages at one point. The progression through each stage is not uniform or standard. The ultimate goal is to reach the ability to hold a writing tool with a functional grasp pattern that promotes adequate speed, accuracy, and legibility without it being the cause of pain or fatigue.
For many kids, achieving fine motor precision and the skill for written output is challenging. However, as NESCA Occupational Therapist Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, reminds us in her recent post, “Handwriting vs. Typing: Where do we draw the line?,” handwriting is still a valuable life tool.
So, what does the progression of pencil grasp development actually look like?
Primitive Stages – Observed between 12 and 36 months. The art of drawing and coloring is often the first exposure and gateway to children learning how to hold a writing tool. There is all the freedom, no pressure of writing, and no right and wrong to their drawing.
- Radial Cross Palmer Grasp (Fig a.) – Full arm and shoulder movement is used to move the writing tool. The writing tool is positioned across the palm of the hand, held with a fisted hand, and the forearm is fully pronated with elbow winged high out to the side.
- Palmer Supinate Grasp (Fig b.) – Full arm and shoulder movement is used to move the writing tool. The writing tool is positioned across the palm of the hand, held with a fisted hand, with slight flexion of the wrist, and the elbow slightly lowered out to the side.
- Digital Pronate Grasp (Fig c.) – Full arm and shoulder movement used to move the writing tool. Arm and wrist are floating in the air, and only the index finger extends along the writing tool toward the tip.
Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990)
Children will begin to shift between the various pencil grips as their shoulder and arm muscles become stronger and steadier.
Immature grasp or transitional grip phase – This grip has been observed as young as 2.7 years of age through 6.6 years of age as stated through research (Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990)).
- Static Tripod grasp (Fig g.) – The child will use their forearm and wrist movements only keeping fingers stationery and wrists slightly bent. Movement of the hand can be observed as not graceful. The thumb, index and middle finger will work together as the shaft of the pencil is stabilized by the 4th finger.
Ann-Sofie Selin (2003)
Mature grips – There is so much talk about what looks right and what looks wrong. Traditional pencil grips have evolved through time. There have been four pencil grips now classified as a mature grasp pattern. All mature grips use precise finger movement to manipulate a writing tool while keeping the forearm stabilized.
- Dynamic Tripod Grip (Fig 1) – Previously known as the golden standard of all grips, where the thumb, index, and middle finger function together, while the pencil shaft rests on the middle finger.
- Dynamic Quadrupod Grip (Fig 2) –The thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers function together while the pencil shaft rests on the ring finger.
- Lateral Tripod Grip (Fig 3) – The pencil shaft is stabilized by the inner (lateral) side of the thumb and index finger while resting on the middle finger.
- Lateral Quadrupod Grip (Fig 4) – The pencil shaft is stabilized by the inner (lateral) side of the thumb, index, and middle finger while resting on the ring finger.
Koziatek SM, Powell NJ (2003)
Pencil grips are generally believed to affect handwriting, and awkward pencil grips become the most commonly assumed cause as to why that is (Ann-Sofie Selin, 2003). However, the production of untidy or illegible handwriting does not always correlate to an unusual pencil grip. The most efficient pencil grip for a child is the one that will help them write with speed and legibility, without pain for an extended period of time.
When should a parent, caregiver or educator be concerned?
- There is pain and excessive pressure on the writing tool by holding on too tight
- Illegible handwriting
- Writing speed is compromised
- Complaint of hand fatigue during writing and coloring activities
- Holding the pencil with a primitive grasp (e.g., full fist) after 4 years of age
- White knuckles or hyperextended joints in fingers holding a writing tool
- Visible flexed wrist and forearm lifted off the writing surface
- Inability to choose a clear hand preference between ages 4 and 6 years of age
- Complete avoidance of all drawing or writing activities
If you are concerned about your child’s pencil grip and/or handwriting, an Occupational Therapist can work with you to identify challenging areas and determine next steps. Let us know if we can help support your child.
Koziatek SM, Powell NJ. Pencil grips, legibility, and speed of fourth-graders’ writing in cursive. Am J Occup Ther. 2003 May-Jun;57(3):284-8.
Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990) Descriptive analysis of the developmental progression of grip position for pencil and crayon control in nondysfunctional children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 44, (10) 893 – 900
Ann-Sofie Selin (2003). Pencil Grip: A Descriptive Model and Four Empirical Studies. Åbo Akademi University Press.
About the Author
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.