The evolution of a toddler’s pencil grip

Every child develops these motor skills on a different timeline, but there are rough guidelines for around when the different stages of pencil grip. These stages reflect a child’s fine motor skills as they develop, and as they progress, her ability to make more detailed, complex, and compact marks on the page progresses as well.

Some of this evolution is purely developmental – toddlers hold pencils and crayons in certain ways because that’s what their motor skills are strong enough to let them do so far. But other parts of how pencil grip evolves are somewhat cultural, evidenced by some of the age variation for certain milestones by country as seen in different studies. It’s understood that a lot of this difference comes down to when different countries tend to start teaching young children writing and instructing them on the best ways to hold pencils or crayons.

This makes it especially hard to pin down a timeline for pencil grip, but whether something happens a little earlier or later, there is a general timeline of stops children make on their way down the road to a mature grip.

The past

When Baby first picked up a pencil or crayon, maybe when she was around a year old or one and a half, she probably held it clenched in her fist. From here, she could use her whole arm to make big, scribbling motions.

The present

As she got better and better at holding and using writing instruments, she probably started to shift her grip from the fist-clench she started with to something that still had the writing instrument laying across her palm, but now also pointing down from the thumb and with her fingers angled for greater control. This kind of grip is called the palmar grasp, and it is similar to holding a fork or spoon, which is another skill that children around this age are working hard to master, so this often happens around the same time.

You’ll know Baby is getting ready to move away from this grip as she starts to use her fingers more for control of her grip. It’s common for toddlers to stay in the stage where they use the palmar grip well after their third birthdays, though, so there’s no need to worry if she still mostly seems comfortable using her palm to grip or control pencils or pens.

The future

Once your little one starts to understand the mechanics of using her fingers for control as she grips a pencil, then she will probably move from quadropod grip to static tripod, before settling into the mature type of grip, dynamic tripod, usually some time around six years old, although not every child stops at each one of these grips distinctly.

  • Quadropod grip: Sometime around three and a half or four years old, Baby may start using four fingers to support the pencil, instead of gripping it in her fist. She won’t be able to move her fingers to gain and keep control of the pencil yet, so most movement will happen in her wrist and arm. Not every child uses the quadropod grip.
  • Static tripod grip: Just like a mature pencil grip, the static pencil grip, which may also begin around three and a half or four years old, grips the pencil with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger. Unlike the mature, dynamic grip, though, with a static tripod grip, children aren’t yet able to shift their fingers to get and keep a more controlled grip as they draw or write, so most movement comes from the arm and wrist.
  • Dynamic tripod grip: From a static grip, young children eventually develop the dynamic tripod grip, where the pencil is gripped between the thumb and first two fingers, all of which can move independently to do more detailed and controlled drawing and writing. This grip may start to emerge at any time from four to six years old.

Helping toddlers develop their pencil grasp

Ideally, toddlers and young children shouldn’t need to really be taught how to hold a pencil, pen, or crayon – their grip should evolve on its own. As they have plenty of chances to try out new grips and experiment, and as their motor skills grow, the way they grip pencils, crayons, and other writing implements will develop and evolve. This means that the best way to encourage your little one to work on her pre-writing skills at this point is to just give her plenty of chances to practice. You can give her lots of chances by keeping art supplies around your home and offering them to her often. Art supplies that are helpful for children Baby’s age are big sheets of paper she can spread out with and thick, easy-to-grip pencils and crayons. 


Sources
  • Ann Sofie Selin. “Pencil Grip: A Descriptive Model and Four Empirical Studies.” Åbo Akademi University Press, 2003. Retrieved October 19 2017. http://www.doria.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/4108/TMP.objres.23.pdf?sequence=2.
  • Lisa Wilkinson. “What is Pencil Grasp Development?” The Elbow Room. the elbowroom. Retrieved October 19 2017. https://www.the-elbowroom.com/useful-information/news/stages-of-pencil-grasp-development/.
  • “The Development Of Hand-Function, Grasps and Drawing Skills.” Gold Coast Primary Health Network. HealthyGC. Retrieved October 19 2017. https://www.healthygc.com.au/MedicareLocal/media/Site-Pages-Content/Nurse/Pencil_Grip_and_Drawing_Skills.pdf. 

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