Development of Pencil Grasp – How to Promote a Functional Grasp with 5 Types of Activities

Pencil Grasp

These 5 types of activities will help promote the development of a functional pencil grasp.  You’ll be surprised that a pencil is not even needed! 

Development of pencil grasp for school and writing tasks starts at a very young age.  And it continues through preschool and early elementary. 

Near the start of my career as an occupational therapist, I was lucky enough to work in a preschool program that was absolutely amazing. 

The director made sure that all staff members were well trained and worked together with the kids.  We were such a well-oiled machine!  As a team, we embedded helpful developmental strategies into every single part of the preschool routine!

The best part about the teachers and staff… not only did they incorporate the many therapeutic strategies… but they wanted to know the reasons why they were using them!

They loved learning more about the OT tricks that I had to share. And they wanted to know how and why they were helping the kids!

Our entire team loved seeing the results!

How Does Proper Pencil Grasp Develop?

Grasp development (and fine motor skill development) starts in babies! 

Many motor milestones are important for grasping.  Proper positioning during play and using the right toys lay the foundation for fine motor development. 

The body starts building a foundation as a baby plays on the floor.  She lies on her side for play, learns to roll and pushes up on her arms while on her belly.

Every movement against gravity helps the core and shoulders get strong and stable. 

Pushing through open hands (weight-bearing) during tummy time prepares the muscles in the palms for grasping. 

Play with various sizes and weights of toys help with grasping patterns in babies and toddlers.  Proper developmental toys and activities can offer many opportunities for hand strengthening.   

The skill development continues in older toddlers, preschoolers and kindergartners. 

Pencil Grasp Developmental Sequence
(Pin this Pencil Grasp Development Image on Pinterest)

What Does the Development of Pencil Grasp Look Like?

Young toddlers will typically first use their whole fist to grasp a large crayon or marker (‘gross’ or ‘palmar grasp.’) 

As the nerves in the hand start to mature, they will turn their pointer finger toward the paper (‘digital pronate grasp.’)  This grasp looks awkward (and incorrect) since the elbow often wings out to the side.  However, it’s part of the sequence for most kiddos.

Next, a young child may use the pads of all their fingertips on a marker or crayon in a ‘digital grasp’.

Or, they may just use the pads of their skill fingers: thumb, index and middle fingers.  This is called a ‘3-jaw chuck grasp’ where the thumb is held in close to the palm. 

Eventually, between ages 3 and 4, the 3-fingered static tripod grasp develops. 

The thumb is held out away from the other fingers, making a circular shape with the index finger.  

This maturing grasp is called a static tripod grasp because the fingers stay still like a statue.  Movements for coloring or drawing come from the shoulder, or the forearm, or the wrist.

The mature pencil grasp that you want to see is called a dynamic tripod grasp – the 3-finger grasp that uses finger movements!  This typically develops between ages 4 and 6.

Just like in the static tripod grasp, the pads of the thumb and index finger hold the pencil, as it rests on the side the middle finger.   However, in the dynamic tripod grasp, the fingers move to control the pencil.  The entire arm and wrist remain still and only finger movements are used. 

Alternate Pencil Grasps That Are Functional for Kids

An alternate grasp that I sometimes see kids use on a pencil is the 4-fingered quadrupod grasp.

The pad of the middle finger has contact with the pencil and the and ring finger helps hold and support it.  Instead of the pencil resting on the first joint of the middle finger, it rests on the ring finger.

All four fingers hold and move the pencil.  The quadrupod grasp is functional and works for some kids.  They still use finger movements, they’re just gaining extra support from the ring and pinky fingers.

Another alternate grasp that kids will use is the modified tripod grasp.  A child will place the pencil in between the index and middle fingers.  When grasping a pencil in this manner, finger movements are also still used.

Alternative Pencil Grasps

There are other not-so-pretty ways that kids hold a pencil!  The thumb may wrap around the other fingers.  Instead of seeing curved fingers, the end joints on the finger may bend inward.

Or, a child may try to hook their index finger around the top of the pencil.

Any of these last few examples can cause a child’s hand to become sore and can cause more fatigue when writing. 

The following activities are important for preschool, kindergarten and first grade students.  However, they’re also beneficial for older students who lack core strength and have poor hand awareness.

Activities That Promote the Development of Pencil Grasp

1. Vertical Surface Activities

Activities at a vertical surface help give the body stability needed for fine motor tasks.

In order to have a functional grasp, the core, shoulder, and wrist need to be strong and stable.  They all support the whole arm so that the fingers can move freely without getting tired.

Vertical activities place the wrist in slight extension, allowing the fingers to move more effectively.

Have kids play or work at an easel, a wall, or a magnetic vertical surface.  Place Legos or other building materials on a vertical surface.

[For more vertical surface activity ideas, check out Benefits of Vertical Surfaces for Kids – 30+ Ideas.]

2. Prone Activities (Lying on the Floor on the Stomach)

Lying on the belly helps to strengthen the shoulders and upper back. 

The pressure from the floor is also really important for the forearms.  It gives pressure input to the pinky side of the forearm that provides needed stability during grasping.  It’s what helps the pinky and ring fingers curl in for the tripod grasp.

Encourage lying on the stomach to look at books, play a board game, or complete a fine motor project.

[Check out 27 Easy Prone Position Activities for Kids to Improve Strength for easy ways to add these to your play and learning routines.]

3. Weight-Bearing Activities on Open Palms

When kids place weight and pressure through their open palms, it stretches out the hand muscles.  Stretching the muscles helps activate them and prepare them for proper use. 

This position is also good for core and shoulder stability. And it provides proprioceptive heavy work input which is calming and organizing for the nervous system and increases attention and focus.

A really good weightbearing activity on open palms is a wheelbarrow walk.

Other examples of weightbearing activities on open palms are a bear walk, a crab walk, or a tall plank position. If space is not available, I often have kids hold the positions and carefully lift and kick their legs. (You can count or recited the alphabet.)

Activities to Improve Fine Motor Grasping Skills

4. Thumb Opposition and Strength and Thumb Stability Activities

In order for the tripod grasp to develop, the muscle at the base of the thumb (in the palm) needs strengthened.  It needs to be able to hold the thumb away from the palm and the other fingers.

(When holding the pencil, the thumb makes a circle shape with the index finger when it’s strong and stable.)

Activities that help stabilize the thumb include using objects that are the size of the palm or slightly bigger. 

An example in preschool settings, have kids paint at a vertical surface using half of an apple or a potato as the painting tool.  Or use various toys that are palm size or larger.

A kid favorite thumb strengthening activity is using a tennis ball with a slit in it (see the previous image.) You can use coins, buttons, alphabet beads, erasers, or any small manipulative to “feed” the ball.   Add it to a language art learning center using alphabet beads.

Or, use it in a math center [check Simple DIY Math Manipulatives for Tactile and Kinesthetic Learning for more ideas.]

Playdoh, stress balls, handheld Tomy water games, and resistive blocks / magnets are great activities for strengthening the thumbs.

5. Skill Finger Activities

In order to really focus on developing a tripod grasp, skill finger activities are important.  Finding activities that only require the thumb, index and middle fingers is key!

My favorite skill finger development tool to use for preschool and school age kids are tongs.  BUT – they must use the skill fingers!  I prefer shorter and thicker tongs since they’re easier to control with the skill fingers (in the previous photo.)

During drawing and coloring, very short / chunky crayons only allow the skill fingers to fit on them.  Or, small pieces of chalk and a small eraser square for tracing or cleaning encourage use of the pads of the thumb, index and middle fingers.

Additional skill finger activities include play with small beads, letter or math cubes, or games with small pieces.

These 5 types of activities are basic ways to start to help with grasp development. Hand skill development starts starts with postural stability. Vertical and floor activities help to provide that as well as core exercises. I see so many kids who lack core strength and stability.

Weight-bearing activities and thumb strengthening activities provide support and stability. Skill finger games and activities promote the use of the proper fingers during grasping.

For more information and resources on other areas of development related to grasp development, check out the next section. Save this post (and share with others) so that you have these resources all in one area.

Additional Resources on Fine Motor Skill Development, Pre-Writing Skills, and Writing Activities

For all fine motor tasks, kids need to sit with good posture: Correct Sitting Posture for Kids – An Important Tip! In order to write efficiently, kids need to be positioned correctly in a chair and desk that fit properly. Certain Flexible Seating Options can help improve seated posture.

Proper grasp development is dependent on hand strength and stability. Check out these 107 activities and exercises to improve hand strength.

If you’re focusing on grasp development, you’re likely focusing on Pre-Writing Skills. It’s important to make sure that children have writing readiness skills before they’re expected to print.

A great grasping and readiness activity is An Easy Visual Motor Activity Using Magnets. The kids have to grasp the magnet under a plate or tray to slide it around to move a magnet on the top. It’s great for hand awareness and visual scanning. For additional tactile awareness, check out Tactile Learning: A Unique Hands On Activity.

When kids ARE ready to print, there are several Sensory Writing Activities that can help improve interest and motivation for writing.

And please, when you begin to practice printing- make sure they learn the correct way to form letters from the start! Form Letters Properly with These 9 Helpful Tips – Number 8 is my favorite trick! As you’re teaching letter formation, also check if kids are using the right amount of pencil pressure.

During printing and when developing a dynamic tripod grasp, kids need to use finger movements. Dexterity in the Hands – 43 In-Hand Manipulation Activities & Games to Improve Handwriting shares easy ways to work on finger movements needed for writing, cutting, fine motor activities, and daily self-help tasks.

Visual perceptual tasks are super important for reading and writing readiness. Kids’ brains have to have a good understanding of position in space, size differences, form constancy, and many more areas of visual perception in order to read and print with success.

Cutting activities are a great visual motor skill that addresses bilateral coordination and grasping. Check out How to Improve Scissor Skills – the post includes worksheets for cutting practice:

Cutting Worksheets for Preschool and Kindergarten

Finally, developing skills in kids should be fun and motivating for them and done through play-based learning. So many areas of development and learning are BEST addressed through play and projects such as arts and crafts.

A great craft that also works on grasp development and creativity is tearing construction paper. I use this fine motor activity with kids of all ages: Super Easy Fine Motor Activity – Construction Paper.

Fun and motivation help with improving memory during play and learning. And, of course, don’t forget the foundation for all learning and development: the sensory systems in the pyramid of learning.

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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