Developing the Pencil Grasp

Why is my child having trouble with their pencil grasp?

When looking at our child’s skills, we will commonly be puzzled to why they are having so much trouble completing a task that we take for granted. The role of an occupational therapist is to break down the smaller steps that are required for your child to be successful in completing a skill such as holding and using their pencil correctly.

The ability to hold and use the pencil correctly is actually really complicated and requires a huge number of smaller skills to be developed first. These skills include (but are not limited to):

  • Core strength/postural stability
  • Shoulder strength and stability
  • Wrist strength and stability
  • Hand preference and midline crossing
  • Hand and finger strength
  • Finger isolation
  • In-hand manipulation skills (the ability to move items within the hand and fingers)

Whilst children are supported within the school environment to help promote the development of a functional pencil grasp, some children often benefit from additional external support.

Is there anything I can do at home to support?

The completion of pencil-based tasks in the home is important in order to develop a functional pencil grasp. It is however very important to target the foundational skills required in order to effectively hold and use a pencil, as these skills are also crucial for completion of other refined fine motor tasks such as using scissors.

Activities that target core and shoulder strength/stability:

  • Wheelbarrow races
  • Animal walk races (e.g. crab walks)
  • Playing ‘Twister’
  • Playing ‘Tug of War’
  • Painting/drawing on vertical surfaces (e.g. drawing with chalk on bricks)

Activities that promote wrist strength/stability:

  • Helping in the kitchen or play with playdough (kneading, using cookie cutters and using a rolling pin)
  • Using stamps (e.g. pressing stamps into ink pads, then onto paper)
  • Hammering games

Activities that help to promote midline crossing and hand preference:

  • Hand clapping games
  • Helping in the home (e.g. wiping over surfaces, mirrors)
  • Messy play (shaving foam/paint – reaching over to the other side of the page and back)

Activities to promote hand and finger strengthening:

  • Engaging in craft activities (e.g. use of sticky tape, hole punchers, staplers and opening containers or twist top jars, eye droppers or squeezing paint filled sponges)
  • Playing with play dough
  • Helping around the home (e.g. using trigger spray bottles to water plants, using pegs to help hang out the washing)
  • Playing in the bath/shower (e.g. squeezing toys that spray water and squeezing/rinsing water from flannels)

Activities to promote the ability to isolate finger movements:

  • Playing with tweezers/small tongs
  • Finger twister
  • Finger puppets
  • Squeezing squirt toys during bath play (with the thumb, index and middle finger)

Activities to promote in-hand manipulation skills:

  • Practicing to rotate and move small items within the finger tips
  • Practicing to shift items in the fingertips (e.g. moving string within the fingertips in threading tasks)

How can an occupational therapist support these skills?

It is common that families and teachers will identify concerns with regards to a child’s pencil grip. Occupational therapists are trained to analyse your child’s current skills and difficulties to identify smaller goals your child will need to achieve as stepping stones towards achieving a larger goal, such as achieving a functional pencil grip. As every child is different, the skills that one child needs support in, is likely to be different to another child. Hence a thorough assessment is always the place to start. Supports for the development of a functional pencil grip may include, but are not limited to:

  • Completing occupational therapy assessment, to analyse their current development with regards to the above foundation skills and to identify their current pencil grasp.
  • Engaging in therapy sessions to develop the child’s skills in these areas through fun and creative activities.
  • Supporting the parents and educators to help develop their child’s skills at home, school and in the community.

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