Kiddos start making marks on a paper at about 1 year of age. They progressively develop further control and better grasp of the pencil. This results in increased quality of drawing and written work. An inefficient grasp may negatively affect control of movements, flow, legibility and speed of written work.

The first stage in developing pencil skills is a palmar grasp. They will generally use this grasp to reach out to objects when they begin to be interested in coloring – beginning with large chunky crayons.

The second stage involves the digital grasp. This will develop as they gain more control with a crayon. Usually, by the time the child is three, they will be using this grasp. I usually do not recommend a pencil till about 4-5 years of age. When your child is ready for a pencil, try a golf pencil first. The smaller diameter and length, as well as lighter weight, is ideal for small hands.

The third stage is the static tripod. At this stage, there is improved control of the writing/coloring tool. However, at this stage, the fingers will appear stiff and held close together. No worries, it is OK. Movement at this stage comes from the wrist and this grip is usually developed by 4 years of age. Interestingly, some children will continue with this grasp through school age years. But they will have difficulty later in school life and will often complain of discomfort and fatigue when required to write for longer periods of time.

The final and fourth stage is the dynamic tripod grasp. At this stage, the pencil is supported between the thumb and two fingers. Movement comes from isolated finger movements rather than the wrist. This is considered a functional mature grasp. At this stage, the child’s hand is more relaxed and movement looks more “fluid” as the child writes. A child has usually mastered this grasp pattern by K/1 st grade.

Activities to Improve Pre-Writing Skills:

– Playing jump rope
– Volleyball-type activities where hands, paddles, or rackets are in palm-up position
– Squirt bottles
– Slinky-shift back and forth with palm up
– Bead stringing/lacing with tip of finger against thumb
– Pouring from small pitcher to specific level in clear glass. Increase size of pitcher as strength increases.
– Practice screwing and unscrewing lids
– Pop bubble wrap
– Play dough/silly putty activities
– Tear pieces of construction paper into small pieces and paste the different colors of paper on simple picture from a coloring book, or make your own design.
– Floor activities – large mural painting, floor puzzles, coloring when lying on stomach on floor.
– Dot-dots, color by number, mazes.
– Wheelbarrow walking-child’s hands are the large ones from Bed Bugs game or kitchen tongs.
– Finger plays/string games such as Cat’s Cradle.
– Use tongs/tweezers to pick up blocks/small objects.
– Pennies into piggy back or slot cut in plastic lid. Coins can also be put into slots cut in foam.
– Working on vertical surface, especially above eye level. Activities can be mounted on a clip board or tapes to surface or chalkboard/easel. Examples: pegboards, Lite Brite, Etch-a-sketch( upside down), Magna doodle, outlining, coloring, painting, writing.
– Clothespins/pinching. Put letters on clothespins and spell words by clipping on edge of shoe box. Use a clothespin to do finger “push-ups” by using the pads of the thumb and index finger to open a clothespin and count repetitions.
– Squirrel objects into palm (pick up with index finger and thumb, move into palm without using the other hand)
– Squeeze sponges to wash off table, clean windows, shower, etc.

Seena M. Patel, OTR