Should Pencil Grasp be Taught? Do Kids Learn it Automatically?

More and more, I hear people asking if pencil grasp should be taught, or will our children automatically learn the correct pencil grip on their own?  Is it inherently pre-programmed that we can confidently leave for nature to take care of?  Or, do we need to be paying it attention, and if so, how?

should we teach pencil grip

We teach gross motor skills

Motor development in young children truly is a miraculous process to witness.  Our babies are born with little in the way of active, purposeful motor skills.  Yet, by the end of their first year, most of them are walking and getting up to all sorts of mischief on the way!

And, as they master those motor skills, we, as parents, support them through it.  As they learn to sit, we prop them up with cushions.  When it comes to walking, we hold their hands and support them as they take their first wobbly steps.  They have it in them to learn how to walk; they just need some help and support along the way.

We teach fine motor skills

So how does that translate to fine motor skills and correct pencil grip?  We certainly teach our children how to post things.  We show them what happens when they push a button, and how a shape sorter works.  They aren’t somehow magically pre-programmed to know how to unscrew the lid off a bottle.  We teach them shoelaces and how to brush their teeth.

Should pencil grasp should be taught?

Mary Benbow, one of the great handwriting researchers said the following:

“Adults should not assume that children somehow know the best way to hold a pencil, or that they will acquire (it) through incidental experience.”

Mary Benbow, Occupational Therapist and Handwriting Specialist

Yes!  Pencil grasp should be taught!

And so, it seems that we should teach pencil grip.  But how do we do this?  Should we be using fancy pencil grip devices to do this, and when should we be introducing them?

Should we use a pencil gripper to teach pencil grip?

Nicole M Sergent, MPT has written so eloquently about the “container shuffle” our babies go through.

"These are babies who move from snug and safe car seats, to bumbo seats, to high chair, to pram to walking rings.  They are so busy being supported by state-of-the-art external equipment and apparatus that they often end up with uneven motor development.  Certain muscle groups end up being compromised from never having really being used. We are not saying you shouldn’t support your baby as they learn to walk, and we are not saying you shouldn’t support your child in the development of pencil grip - the challenge is how to do this."

Nicole M Sergent, MPT

How does container shuffle relate to teaching correct pencil grip?

There are always specific situations or circumstances where a grip in a young child is indicated, but it should not be the norm in children before 5 years of age.  The earliest I recommend introducing a grip is in Grade R.  And then we use the smallest grip to get the outcome we are looking for.

Please don’t use these bulky grips with 4-year-olds unless under the guidance of a specialist occupational therapist.  Instead, develop the motor foundations.  Show them the next grip in the developmental sequence, but let’s not “containerise” their fingers as we have their bodies.

If we do this, we run the risk of a grip that looks good but lacks the underlying muscles and movement patterns for the pencil to do the very important work of handwriting.  It is a little like a real fancy sports car, but under the bonnet, the engine isn’t working quite as it should.

And this is where our focus needs to be.  Yes, we need to show our children how to hold the pencil – in the correct developmental sequence.  But let’s not use massive, high-profile pencil grips for little hands.  Pencil grips devices are great for modifying a grasp that has gone wrong but let's not cover up our children’s fingers, so the critical tactile input required to grade pencil pressure and control is dulled down by a layer of plastic.

Choosing a low-profile pencil grip that will position the fingers can work really well.  Please don’t think I am saying no to using any pencil grip. I am just saying that bigger is not necessarily better.

When should we start?

Our children are ready to start with writing materials as soon as they express an interest.  If they see us busy with our cell phones, they want them too.  They will want to experiment if they see us with writing materials.  One of the most powerful things we can do in the early stages to teach pencil grip is to grab our children’s interest.  If you don't spend much time with writing materials, do it for your children.

In the early stages, let your child find their way.  Let them hold, scribble, experiment and manipulate.  Don’t insist they hold the pencil in their hand in the same way you would – their little hands simply aren’t ready for that.

How should we teach pencil grip?

  1. Start with grasping and releasing, posting and threading.  All these golden oldies will help our children when it comes to learning pencil grip.
  2. Teach them how to open and close things.
  3. Build up hand strength!  Our children need to dig in the sand and manipulate play dough.
  4. Teach them to cut.

All these fine motor manipulatory skills are helping our children to prepare their hands for pencil grip.

Once the foundations have been laid, you are going to gently take your child from one developmental stage to the next.  Remember how you never took your infant baby and tried to get them to walk?  You let them sit, then crawl, then walk, then run. It's the same with pencil grip.  Pencil grasp should be taught, but in the developmental sequence.

The complexities of teaching our children how to hold a pencil

In pencil grip development, I spoke at length about the stages of pencil grip and how important it is for our children to move through the developmental stages.  We don’t want our children to jump from the first baby pencil grasp to the mature dynamic tripod grip.

Pencil grasp should be taught in the developmental sequence.

What makes teaching correct pencil grip so difficult is that it is not so clear cut as to when we should intervene and when our children are just on a normal developmental journey.  How do we know when to push them to the next stage or just leave them on their journey?

It is easy to write about absolutes, less so about things where there is no clear-cut answer.  There is no clear-cut answer as to when your child should shift from one stage to the next.  I cannot say once your child has spent two months using a grip pattern that it is time to move on.  It simply doesn't work that way.

Teaching correct pencil grip in the techno age

With the generalised decline in hand strength and fine motor skills, another aspect needs to be considered when teaching pencil grip.  And that is the muscles and movement patterns that offer the foundations for pencil grip.  It is not enough that we teach finger placement.  Finger placement will not be successful if the foundations are not in place.  Teaching pencil grip in the techno era requires more than finger placement.  The functional forearm position, wrist extension and stability, and separation of the two sides of the hand, amongst others, need to be specifically developed for the teaching of finger placement to be effective.

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Some general principles to follow for teaching pencil grip to kids:

  1. Take note when your child is using some "awkward" grip pattern.  Development does not always happen like it is in the books.  There are variations.  But if your child is doing something irregular, do have a word with their teacher.
  2. Take a look around at the other children in your child's class.  I am not suggesting a competitive look; I am suggesting you get an idea of what other children of that age are doing.  There is a wide range of normal development in preschoolers, so please don't be worried if your child seems to be behind.  Sometimes they are just busy with other developmental aspects like their speech, or mastering a scooter.
  3. Ask your child's teacher.  Experienced teachers know.  They have a gut feel which is often right.
  4. Always focus on developing the foundations of hand strength and muscle development.
  5. Always encourage your child to take the next step in the pencil grip journey – never encourage them to jump to the end.
  6. If you are worried, you may decide to consult an occupational therapist for an opinion.
  7. You can use the pencil grip song to help your child to master the last stage of pencil grip development.

Sarah from Stay at Home Educator also weighed in on should we teach pencil grip.

In closing on if pencil grasp should be taught?

So, should we teach pencil grip?  Yes!  But in the developmental sequence, just as we would teach a child to first sit, then crawl and walk.  It is not a science as to when to move to the next stage and it isn't always clear-cut.  But if we work on building sound foundations and following the developmental sequence, we are going to go a long way toward supporting our children through the process to correct pencil grip.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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