Pencil grasp is a complicated affair

The way a child holds onto their pencil is often a focus of assessment in the early years. A mature pencil grasp supports pencil skill maturity and handwriting. The ‘dynamic tripod’ is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of pencil grasps and something that all children are expected to achieve.

In this post I will explore

  • How grasps develop

  • Mature and immature grasps

  • Ideas to support a child who needs help

boy writing with immature pencil grasp

Pencil grasp is a complicated affair

The way a child holds onto their pencil is often a focus of assessment in the early years. A mature pencil grasp supports pencil skill maturity and handwriting. The ‘dynamic tripod’ is considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of pencil grasps and something that all children are expected to achieve.

In this post I will explore

  • How grasps develop

  • Mature and immature grasps

  • Ideas to support a child who needs help

The dynamic tripod

The reason the dynamic tripod is championed is because it provides the highest amount of pencil control for the least amount of muscle effort. This helps to facilitate speed of writing. The reason so much focus is put onto this grasp, in my opinion, is that it is because the other grasps are less efficient. In reality however, it is common to see a variation of this grasp in adults and children.

Let’s explore the stages of pencil grasp development, and some examples of functional and less functional grasps.

The stages of pencil grasp development

Pencil grasp, like all motor skills, develops in a sequence. Initially, the child uses a larger or gross grasp. As they get older, their pencil grasp matures. To be efficient with their pencil skills, the child also needs to be able to hold the paper steady with their other hand.  There are four main stages that the child will progress through.

Gross or palmer grasp

To begin with, the child will use what is called a ‘gross grasp‘ or a ‘palmer grasp’. This is typical for a 12-18 month year old.  The child will hold their pencil with their fist.  They can make large movements and their colouring is not very controlled.

Gross Pencil Grasp

Digital pronate grasp

Between 2-3 years of age a child will start to use what is called a ‘digital pronate grasp’. This is where the child will turn their palm around so their little finger faces the ceiling.  They continue to hold the pencil in all of their fingers, with it resting against their palm.  The child begins to have more control over their pencil.

Digital Pronate Pencil Grasp

Static tripod

Around the age of 3 ½ to 4 years old the child will turn their hand over so their little finger faces their paper. They start with what is called a ‘static tripod grasp’. The pencil is held in between the tips of the thumb, index and middle finger, however the child controls the movement from their wrist and elbow. This is why it is called a ‘static’ tripod.

Tripod grasp

Dynamic tripod pencil grasp

In a ‘dynamic tripod grasp’ the pencil remains held in between the tips of the thumb, index and middle finger, as shown above. The index finger should be controlling the movement and the thumb and middle finger help with directional control. This finger movement is what separates a ‘dynamic tripod’ or ‘moving tripod’ from its less mature ‘static tripod’ or ‘still tripod’. The fingers are in the same position for both grasps, but when a child has developed dynamic control their fingers control the pencil movement.

Functional and mature pencil grasps

Most information and advice on pencil grasps champions the dynamic tripod grasp.  The dynamic tripod grasp, as mentioned earlier, is when a child holds their pencil with their index and middle fingers and thumb. The pencil movement should come from the fingers, resulting in dynamic control or a dynamic tripod. There are, however, a few other grasps that are equally as functional.

Quadruped – dynamic

Research suggests that a ‘dynamic quadruped grasp‘ is as effective as a ‘dynamic tripod grasp’. In a quadruped grasp the child holds the pencil with their thumb, index, middle and ring fingers on the pencil. They tuck away the little finger. The child should still hold the pencil with the tips of their fingers, rather than their thumb being wrapped around.  By the age of seven, the pencil movement should come from the fingers rather than their wrist. So, if you’re seeing this grip, mark it as mature.

Quadruped grasp

Middle finger control

You may also see children with a tripod or quadruped grasp that control the pencil with their middle finger. Usually this is ok, as long as they have kept their web-space open and the movement is coming from their fingers.  NB: The web-space is the flap of skin between the thumb and index finger.

Middle Finger control quadruped grasp

Modified or alternative tripod pencil grasp

A final grasp which is less known, but highly effective for some children, is the ‘modified’ or ‘alternative tripod grasp’. With this grasp, the child puts the pencil between their index and middle fingers. They then curl these fingers and their thumb around onto the pencil. This feels very strange when you first try it! However, it takes the weight of the pencil, so for children with low tone it can be a good option. It also secures the pencil, so, if you let go the pencil, for the most part, stays in place.

Whilst this grip does look and feel quite strange, it is a good alternative as it means the child can use it on any pen or pencil, rather than needing to remember and or find a pencil grip. It can also be particularly effective for children who use a thumb wrap grasp if they are able to change to it.

Modified Tripod Pencil Grasp Top view
Modified tripod grasp fingers closed

Pencil grasps that are less functional

Children with poor fine motor skills will often find an alternative way to hold onto their pencil. This is usually because their fine motor skills are not  matured enough when they first start holding onto a pencil. The reason these grasps are not ideal is because they don’t allow for optimal finger movement and control of the pencil.

Some common less functional grasps you might see are as follows:

Fingers along shaft

The child spreads all of their fingers along the shaft of the pencil and controls the pencil with their little finger. The child may also hook their index finger right around the top of the pencil. Children with low tone and hypermobility will frequently use this grasp. It is likely that this is because it is easier for them to keep a hold of the pencil and it gives them more control than a digital pronate grasp. It is not a very functional grasp though, as the child will never develop dynamic control from the fingers. This limits their pencil control and speed in the long term.

Immature pencil grasp

Thumb wrap

The second very common grasp is a ‘thumb wrap’. This is where the child starts off with a tripod but their thumb quickly wraps around their pencil and fingers. You may also see a thumb tuck, where the child tucks their thumb in, under their fingers instead of wrapping it over the top.  Children using this grasp may complain of pain in the hand when writing for longer periods as they typically use more effort to control their pencil.

Thumb Wrap grasp

Lateral pencil grasp

Children might also use a more lateral grasp on their pencil. This means they will secure it along the side of their index finger, wrap their thumb around and control the movement by squeezing their hand, rather than moving their fingers at the joints. This grip, again, allows for very limited dynamic movement.

Lateral Pencil Grasp

For younger children it’s essential to look at their underlying posture and fine motor skills.  Sometimes they just aren’t ready to hold a pencil and they need more time.

What can I do to help a child who has an immature pencil grasp?

Firstly, you need to consider if a child has adequate fine motor skills. For younger children or children with developmental delays it is important to consider if they are ready to hold a pencil. The child also needs to be demonstrating an interest in mark making. They do not need to be Picasso, but they do need to be interested in holding a marker and watching the marks it makes. If the child is not at this stage, then you may want to start with:

  • Mark making with finger paints (use edible paint if the child is mouthing paint)

  • Mark making with fingers in sand

  • Using a paint brush to paint water onto windows and fences outside

  • Level one or two of our fine motor skill development programme could be a better starting point for these children.

For children under five years of age, I strongly recommend using finger crayons and small pencils to help them develop the hand control and strength required to develop a tripod grasp. I would highly recommend these if the child is still using a gross grasp, digital pronate grasp, or they are spreading all of their fingers along the pencil.  Designed for two to three year olds, you can easily purchase finger crayons commercially. You can make small pencils by sawing regular thick pencils into 3-4cm lengths or you can use small pieces of crayon.  The video below discusses why you might consider these alternatives.  I discuss other pencil grips in the article To pencil grip, or not to pencil grip?

GriffinOT Pencil Grasp Development Resources

Our song ‘Crocodile Snap’ can also help children to isolate the fingers they need to use when holding their pencil.  We recommend that you remind children to use their ‘crocodile fingers’ when they hold onto their pencil.  The song gives them practice at finding these fingers.  Adults can then use the prompt ‘crocodile fingers’ with children to help them to know which fingers to use.  It is a quick and easier reminder for children to check if they are holding onto their pencil correctly.

If you need extra ideas for children aged 3 1/2 to 8 years, you can try my programme Supporting Pencil Grasp Development.  It provides activities and worksheets designed to improve their pencil grasp. The programme is available in both a book and online format.  It is also included in the Write Rules subscription.

Lastly, it may be that a child would benefit from a pencil grasp. My article ‘To pencil grip, or not to pencil grip?’ discusses pencil grasps in more depth.  It provides video reviews of the pros and cons of the different pencil grasps that are available.

The final piece of advice I would give is that it’s really tricky to change a child’s pencil grasp after the age of seven. This is unless THEY are very motivated to do so. I do not have a specific reference to support this.  However, I have seen it time and time again clinically as an occupational therapist. The earlier children can be supported to develop their pencil grasp, the easier it will for them to change their grasp.

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