Getting a grip on your pencil

Developing a good pencil grip for future educational settings starts at a young age.

A good pencil grip is essential for good handwriting. Photo: Holly Allen, Flickr Creative Commons.
A good pencil grip is essential for good handwriting. Photo: Holly Allen, Flickr Creative Commons.

Backpacks, school clothes, gym shoes and a new lunch box are all things our children might need as they prepare for school in the fall. As we approach the upcoming school year, one thing that is possibly overlooked is your young child’s pencil grip. It is essential for good handwriting. Plus, as young adults enter high school and even college, where an abundance of note taking and lengthy research papers are often required, their grip can quickly become painful and fatigued.

A poor pencil grasp doesn’t use the hand muscles efficiently. However, rushing the process for children that are too young or not ready can be dangerous. It can be very hard to “unlearn” a poor pencil grip. A poor grasp can lead to messy work, holding the pencil in a “weird” way, and avoidance (not wanting to write or even go to school). A good pencil grip depends on strong shoulder and arm muscles (gross motor muscles or big muscles). Therefore playing on a playground, crawling, throwing a ball or playing with playdough are prerequisites to handwriting, and should be encouraged. A pencil grip guide is a great reference to confirm your child is holding the pencil or crayon correctly for their age.

Don’t be alarmed if your child switches back and forth between pencil grasps as these skills are being developed. It is similar to alternating between crawling and walking when they learn to walk. As the small muscles become stronger, they will gradually be able to hold the pencil with the right grasp for longer periods of time.

A proper pencil grip relies heavily on our fine motor skills – the ability to do things with the small hand muscles. These muscles, along with our hand-eye coordination, plus our large muscles as discussed earlier, lay the foundation for future printing. They need lots of opportunities to practice. Some easy tasks for children, especially those that have a difficult time sitting, include stirring batter while baking, opening containers, playing in the sandbox, using squirt bottles, and “writing” with sidewalk chalk. Cutting with scissors is one of the best ways a child can develop the small muscles of the hand. Snipping straws, green beans or peppers is a great way to get reluctant youth to participate.

Michigan State University Extension and Teaching Strategies GOLD offer the following activities that are developmentally appropriate for each age group and great ways to engage kids and strengthen their fine motor muscles:

  • One-year-olds:
    • Pick up cheerios or other crumbs.
    • Throw a small ball forward.
    • Help turn the pages of a book.
    • Bat or swipe at a toy.
    • Scoop objects to pick them up.
    • Hit two blocks together.
    • Crumble paper (prerequisite to cutting).
  • Two-year-olds:
    • Point at objects.
    • Place shape in shape sorter.
    • Use spoon to feed themselves.
    • Dump sand into containers.
    • Rotate knobs.
    • Tear paper (prerequisite to cutting).
  • Three-year-olds:
    • Play with Legos.
    • Remove lids from containers.
    • Cut with scissors.
    • Draw horizontal lines.
    • Hold a crayon between two fingers and a thumb.
    • Pound, poke and squeeze playdough.
    • String large beads.
    • Sew lacing cards.
    • Turn knob to open door.
  • Four-year-olds:
    • Paint with a paintbrush.
    • Draw horizontal and vertical lines that cross.
    • Snip a straight line with scissors (with correct scissors grip).
    • Attempts to tie shoes.
    • String small beads.
    • Cut food.

Poor printing skills can impact a child’s self-esteem and even motivation to go to school. If you are concerned about your child’s development, talk to your child’s doctor and see an occupational therapist for an assessment. For more examples on how to build fine motor skills at home with your child, visit “Building Fine Motor Skills” by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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