A child’s ability to color within the lines, trace a shape or draw simple pictures are the building blocks for handwriting skills to be used throughout their lives. They need to move progressively through different stages of pencil grasp mastery as an important aspect of their early development.

Each stage depends on the strength and stability of the shoulder and arm muscles. As children develop physically, they participate in more and more gross and fine motor activities. These are the building blocks to pencil grasp maturity.

Big to Small
The “big to small” and “proximal to distal” principles note that children develop the larger muscles of the trunk and arms before the smaller muscles of the hands. Likewise, muscles that are closer to the center of the body, known as proximal muscles, mature before distal muscles such as the hands, which are further away.

  • Young children should never be forced to hold a pencil the “right” way. If their shoulder and arm muscles aren’t yet ready to support this action, the result may be serious fine motor problems such as messy work or even avoidance of coloring, drawing and later, writing activities.
  • Encourage motor skills development first. Gross motor skills activities help develop the shoulder girdle and core muscles. Fine motor skills activities build hand and finger strength and dexterity.

Pencil Grasp Stages
The typical progression of pencil grasp development stages looks like this:

  1. Fisted: This is first grasp you’ll likely see when a toddler begins using crayons. The child uses movement from their shoulders to get the crayon to move.
  2. Palmar: The crayon or pencil lies across the palm of the hand and the elbow is held out to the side a bit. This happens as a child gains more control over their arm and hand muscles. At this stage, their proximal muscles are sturdier and they’re beginning to coordinate shoulder and arm control.
  3. Five finger: This is sometimes inaccurately referred to as an “immature” grasp because it is not the three-finger grasp used in school-aged children. But it’s a perfectly mature grip for a pre-school child. The wrist tends to be held off the table, with its movements used for coloring. At first, the crayon is held very tightly. As hand muscles mature, the grip relaxes and finger movements emerge.
  4. Tripod: By about the age of five or six, most children should be comfortable using this mature, three-finger grasp. At first, their fingers will be held somewhat stiffly and they may continue to use wrist movements for control.

It’s normal for children to switch back and forth between pencil grasps as their shoulder and arm muscles develop. This will gradually occur less. It’s comparable to an infant learning to walk: When their legs tire, they revert back to crawling. But as their skills and endurance improve, they walk more and more.

There are numerous therapy activities you can use to foster pencil grasp development. Cutting with scissors is an excellent exercise for getting the tripod fingers to work together. Other pre-writing activities include using squirt bottles, playing with a slinky, stringing beads, popping bubble wrap, playing with play dough or silly putty, putting coins in piggy banks, and completing floor puzzles.

For additional resources to enhance your therapy career – and job opportunities in your specialty field – read our related posts or contact the team at Cobb Pediatric Therapy Services today.

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