Does Pencil Grip Matter or is Pencil Grasp not an Issue?

Once your child is in preschool, the words “pencil grip” and "pencil grasp" suddenly seem to be important.  Does pencil grip matter?  Is it important how children hold their pencils, and can this really impact their future schooling?  Is there even such a thing as incorrect pencil grip and what is a functional pencil grip?

The dynamic tripod pencil grip is the gold standard for pencil grips.  With this grip, your child will hold their pencil with their thumb, index and middle fingers – or the-three-friends® – as we call them at The Happy Handwriter.  But what is so magical about this grip and how do we get there?

Does pencil grip matter and when should a child develop a tripod pencil grasp?

Stages of pencil grasp development

Before our children get to the dynamic tripod grip, they need to go through all the other stages of pencil grip development.  These developmental stages are crucial because each one assists with the development of the foundational muscles and movement patterns your child is going to need for the next.  Just like we can’t teach a child to run before they walk, it usually (in fact I would go so far as to say never) isn’t a good idea for them to jump straight to the mature pencil grip, before having benefited from the muscle development of the less mature pencil grasps.  We do not want a 3-year-old to be holding their pencil like a 6-year-old unless they have transitioned through and benefited from the previous developmental stages.

The first pencil grasp we see our little ones use is the palmar-supinate grasp where movement for mark making is initiated from the shoulder.  This emerges around 1 - 1½ years.  They hold on with their palm in contact with the writing utensil, their thumb is uppermost, and movements are large, messy and unco-ordinated.  This is an important first stage for our children.  Mark making takes the form of random scribbles but it is so exciting to see our children doing this!

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Sometimes it takes children a while to move on from the palmar grasp, while for others it seems to happen without us noticing.  Either way, so long as we don’t interfere with the way our children are progressing, it is fine.  Our job is to provide our children with a wide range of play and experiential opportunities for their hands to manipulate, explore and get strong.  They need those muscles for their pencil grips to keep on developing.  And just so we don’t forget to say it, the swiping and pointing offered by tablets and smart phones is not going to develop the pre-handwriting muscles in the way our children need to enable them to hold their pencils well.

From there, children progress to the digital-pronate grasp where movement is initiated from the elbow. The hand is held with the palm facing down and all the fingers help to hold on.  At this point our children are starting to gain more control over the movements of their writing tool.  Elbow movements are less clumsy than those initiated from the shoulder.  The digital-pronate grasp emerges between 2 – 3 years.

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The static tripod grip, where movement is initiated from the wrist, comes next.  It looks like they are almost there, but they need more foundational muscle strengthening before they move on to the last stage.  With this grasp, movement for drawing comes from the wrist.  It emerges around 3½ - 4 years.  This develops the muscles for the the next stage: the dynamic tripod grasp, where movement initiated from the thumb and fingers emerges.  Catherine Elsey from the National Handwriting Association has a video showing the development of the pencil grasp.

Through this developmental journey the foundational muscles and movement patterns for manipulating the pencil for handwriting are developed.

When should a child develop a tripod pencil grasp?

We need to know about the different developmental stages, because when we look at the different pencil grasps, we need to be able to see if the grip the child is using is one on the typical developmental journey or, if they have made some modification along the way that is going to arrest the future grasp development.  If they are on the developmental journey to a functional pencil grip, we need to provide them with strengthening for the different specific muscle groups to help them move along to the next stage.  We do not want to move them straight to the end point – they need to go through the developmental stages.  Wherever they are, we are just aiming for the next level, and the next and the next, until they have reached the end goal of the dynamic tripod grasp.  Children develop this grasp anywhere between 4½ - 7 years.

The stages of pencil grip development are outlined with an image of each of the 4 basic pencil grasps.In terms of intervention or remediation, if your child is using the first grasp – the palmar-supinate – and you want to assist in progressing, you move to the next grasp – the digital-pronate.  You do not jump to the dynamic tripod posture.  Your child needs to progress through all the developmental stages.

However, some children make modifications to their grip.  This is usually in an attempt to achieve, or compensate for stability that is lacking.  This incorrect pencil grip may be because of low muscle tone, or it may just be that their hands are not strong enough and their muscles need to develop more.  The problem with pencil grip modifications is that over time, the grip becomes hardwired and it can be very difficult to change the holding pattern.  That is why want to get in early before bad patterns become entrenched.

Is the tripod grip the only acceptable one and why is correct pencil grip important?

Grips are divided into efficient and inefficient pencil grips.  Efficient grips are those that allow for the discrete finger movements during handwriting.  What we mean by this, is that the hand rests in a stable position on the table, the wrist assumes an extended position, and the fingers and thumb move independently of the hand.  So, the hand provides a point of stability while the child is able to achieve tiny isolated, discrete refined finger movements which control the pencil.  It is these movements that enable our children to achieve speed and quality of handwriting.

With this as a reference point, we are able to analyse the way a child is writing, if it is an incorrect pencil grip, and decide if we need to change the grip or if it is fine to leave it as it is.

When to fix an incorrect pencil grip

Inefficient grips, or incorrect pencil grips, are those where any modifications to the finger positions have resulted in the finger movements being blocked.  If you assume the thumb wrap position as in the picture, you will see that you are not able to achieve the tiny finger movements required for handwriting.  A thumb wrap will block the finger movements.  A closed web space – the space between the thumb and index fingers – will also block the finger movements.

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However, if there is a slight modification to the finger position and the child can still achieve finger movements, it is considered an efficient or functional pencil grip.  So, a 4-point grip is just fine because it allows for finger movement.  It is an efficient grip.  An efficient grip facilitates finger movement, while an inefficient grip blocks finger movement.  Easy as that!

Developmental immaturities vs modifications to improve stability

When evaluating a pencil grasp, we need to decide if a child is perhaps just slightly behind developmentally.  Perhaps the child is using a digital-pronate grasp when we would be expecting a static tripod.  This is a developmental issue and our goal would be to develop the foundational muscles and facilitate them moving to the next stage.  We would not consider this to be an incorrect pencil grip.

This is different from them making significant modifications which may well prevent normal muscle development from taking place.  With a modified grasp, children often get stuck there.  The intervention here is different.  We do need to work on the foundational muscles and movement patterns, but in addition to this we need to work on re-positioning the fingers so as to facilitate the finger movements.

In closing about functional pencil grip

Does pencil grip matter?   Yes, it does.   We need an efficient or functional pencil grip for our children to be able to achieve the speed and quality of handwriting required for scholastic progress and tests and examinations. Inefficient grips lead to slow handwriting speed and can cause our children to experience pain during handwriting which is not what we would wish for our children.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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