Correct pencil grip and how to promote it

A correct pencil grip is essential for handwriting. But, as an occupational therapist, I often get asked what the correct grip actually is. My answer is usually quite simple: ‘a correct grip is an efficient or functional grip’.

Development of Pencil grip
The first steps in the development of pencil grip are when a baby starts to play with his fingers. He notices that he can move each finger individually as well as move them all at the same time. An efficient pencil grip allows us to move fingers individually as well as collectively.

A baby starts to pick up objects with the pinkie side of their hands. This quickly develops into grasping an object with their whole hand and then with the thumb side of their hands. The next step is to grasp with the thumb, index and middle finger, but the fingers are kept straight. At around 10 months a baby is able to pick up small objects with a pincer grasp (thumb and index finger). Once a baby progressed to this stage they have all the components of an efficient/functional grip. From now on they start to fine-tune the ability to hold a pencil.

Figure 1: Development of pencil grip
The first official pencil grip is a cylinder grasp (holding with a fist, pinkie side toward the page). Now they can scribble using their whole arm.

After this the digital grasp develops. With this grip the thumb is toward the paper, pinkie faces up and all the fingers are on the pencil.

Next is the development of the modified tripod grasp and lastly the dynamic tripod grasp develops. Some children don’t develop a dynamic tripod grasp, but prefer to use a quadruped grasp. This is exactly the same as a tripod, but with the middle finger on the shaft of the pencil as well.

What is an efficient/functional grip?
A child needs stability before they can have mobility. This does not only mean that the pinkie and ring finger of the hand must remain stable while the other 3 fingers move, but it also involves the whole body. A child needs to be seated properly with their shoulders stable and their forearm supported.

A functional grasp does not place any biomechanical strain on the joints of the hand. Some children do not have the hand strength to maintain a pencil grip and therefore hold the pencil too tightly, hyper extend some joints or wrap their fingers around each other in an attempt to hold the pencil.

Another aspect that will determine whether a grasp is functional or not, is whether the child experiences any fatigue or pain during writing. A pencil grip does not need to look perfect as long as the child is not experiencing any fatigue or pain.

Adequate writing speed is often a give away of a functional grasp. If a child is not keeping up with their peers, the pencil grip can often be the culprit.

Practice makes perfect

  • Use smaller writing tools: Due to the smaller surface area it encourages a tripod grasp.
  • Pom-pom: Let the child hold a small pom-pom with their pinkie and ring finger. Now they only have the other fingers available to grasp the pencil.
  • Pick up objects with tongs, tweezers, chop sticks.
  • Wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, leopard crawling, frog jumps and bear walks etc. all strengthen the muscles that are needed to stabilize the body in order to have mobility in the hands and fingers
  • Let the child pick small objects up and hold them in the palm of their hand. Now ask them to place one object at a time in a specific place or container without dropping the other objects or assisting with the other hand.
  • Push small beads into clay and then search for them. Vary the consistency of the clay.
  • Use clothes pegs to pick up objects or peg them around the edges of a magazine. Make sure that the child uses a pincer grasp to squeeze the pegs.
  • Allow children to peel their own fruit. This is excellent for the development of the small muscles in the hand.
  • Let the child tear small pieces of paper and use it to make a picture by pasting it.
  • Let them crumble small pieces of paper between the thumb, index and middle fingers.
  • Let your child work on vertical surfaces. This will not only strengthen their shoulder girdle, but also promote the correct wrist position needed for writing.
  • Play with bubble wrap. Let them try to pop the bubbles between their thumb and index finger.

There are many aspects that can have an influence on the development of a functional pencil grip but parents can incorporate small tasks in their daily program that will promote the development of this pencil grip. Remember that having a functional pencil grip is not a guarantee of beautiful handwriting, but it is an important step in the right direction.

You might want to read more about these exercises tot improve posture.