Last reviewed 18 October 2019

Many hours are spent in infant school classes supporting children to develop the three-finger tripod pencil grip. However, the real work in preparing children to be able to develop a good pencil grip needs to happen within their nursery and pre-school years. Liz Hodgman, Childcare Consultant, looks at how a child’s pencil grip develops and suggests practical ideas that early years practitioners can use to support it.

It is important that a young child is not taught how to hold a pencil using the tripod grip before they are physically ready as this can result in developing a poor grip which could be more difficult to correct. A poor grip can make handwriting difficult and tiring, it can also turn a child off from doing colouring and drawing as they do not see it as a pleasurable experience.

It may not be until a child is five or six years of age that they have developed a good three-finger tripod grip. This is thought to be the most suitable pencil grip for both left and right-handed children. This is because it allows the fingers and wrist to work together to provide a more free-following movement.

Development stages

As with all areas of development, each child will develop the skills needed to hold a pencil at a different time, however they will work through a number of stages. This includes strengthening their hand, shoulder and arm muscles, and mobility.

The principles of development, “proximal to distal” or more commonly referred to as “big to small”, means that a child develops their larger muscles found in their trunk and arms before the smaller muscles in their hand. The proximal muscles are closer to the body centre — the shoulder muscles and upper arm muscles — and these develop before the muscles further away develop, the distal muscles, ie the hand.

Stage 1

It is best to use crayons for the first stage of developing a good pencil grip. The child will hold it the same way as they would a knife or fork, except that the crayon tip will be facing down towards the paper. During their first attempts at mark making, they are likely to hold their arm and elbow rigidly, the movement of the crayon will come from their shoulder.

Stage 2

As they continue with their mark making, the child will start to change the way they hold the crayon. They will hold it in the palm of their hand with their thumb securing it, close to the tip of the crayon. This is similar to how you use a knife and fork to cut food. As their arm strength increases, their elbow will become slightly further away from their body and this provides them with greater flexibility.

Stage 3

The child moves onto holding the pencil (or crayon) with all five fingers and as a result their wrist is no longer on the table or desk. This grip looks very similar to a darts player holding the dart with all five fingers. The wrist is now providing the movement for the pencil, however, as this strengthens further there will be some finger movement.

Stage 4

By the age of six, the child will probably be able to use the three-finger tripod pencil grip. Their fingers may be quite rigid to start with but as their control of their finger muscles increases, this will decrease and their fingers will have greater movement of the pencil.

What can you do as a childcare practitioner?

Childcare professionals need to focus on strengthening the proximal muscles, the shoulder and upper arm. This will prepare the children for their later stages of pencil-grip development. Practitioners need to include a number of fun activities each day that increase strength, control and movement of these muscles.

Tummy time

Encourage tummy time, not just for babies but for all children. This helps develop shoulder and arm muscles and stability. Activities that children can engage in while on their tummy could include, reading, colouring, puzzles or other small toys.

Large mark making

Large mark marking is a great way to encourage large arm movements. If space permits, a large outdoor chalkboard with chunky chalks is ideal. You can buy blackboard paint and paint a wall if this is easier than purchasing a large board. Chalks can also be used on pavement slabs, however, some parents may find this unacceptable as they feel it is like graffiti. Shaving foam in a plastic builders tray also provides a great medium for large mark making.

Water painting

Water painting with rollers and large brushes is a very easily arranged activity. Local “pound shops” often have rollers, tray and brushes which are ideal.

Pompoms

Pompoms can also be picked up quite cheaply and the children will love being cheerleaders. Encourage lots of large arm movements, making shapes or “writing” the first letter of their names in the air. Sky writing using their fingers can also be a fun activity. You can also use sky writing to introduce the first stage of phonics, sounding out the letters they are drawing.

Music and movement activities

Music and movement activities can be used to focus on strengthening the shoulder and arm muscles, for example including some hand pushes. Each child places their palms together with their elbows out and forearms held horizontally. They then need to push their hand together as hard as they can, counting together to five. Use ribbons attached to ends of sticks or scarves to make shapes in the air as part of the music and movement activity. Using disco dough is also a fun way of creating large movements to music. Encouraging the children to move around like different animals and include donkey kicks (hands on floor and kicking legs up into the air) and bear walking (walking on all fours with legs and arms straight).

Outdoor activities

Outdoor activities could include using the monkey bars in the park and climbing activities. Digging in sand or soil also helps develop strength. Large outdoor construction activities, for example moving tyres and small planks of wood also help in strengthening arm muscles.

Crawling, crab walking and wheelbarrow walking

Crawling is also great for strengthening the shoulder and arm muscles. Encourage the children to crawl along the floor like a leopard. Their arms and shoulders need to do the work and there needs to be little leg movement. You may need to demonstrate the crawling technique, keeping your arms close and in front of you rather than spread out wide. Adding a tunnel can make a crawl activity more fun. Crab walking is another option, however this is more demanding physically. Start by moving backwards in the crab position and then try moving sideways just like a crab would. Wheelbarrow walking is also another strengthening activity but needs more careful management to avoid accidents.

Obstacle courses

Obstacle courses that involve children crawling and climbing can be a lot of fun in a group provision. They can be indoors or outdoors. Include tunnels, tents, cushions and mats for the children to navigate.

Parental support

Parents can also support the development of their child’s proximal muscles at home. Key persons should be discussing with parents how strengthening arm and shoulder muscles will support their writing development and providing them with simple activities that they can do at home. For example, playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” sitting on the floor opposite each other pulling and pushing on each others arms as though rowing. A large blanket or throw can also be used to help develop the muscles. Put something fairly heavy on the blanket and then challenge them to drag it across the room.

Concerns over child development

It is important to remember that all children develop differently, however if a practitioner has concerns that a child is struggling with any of these activities then they should make an appropriate referral in order for a professional assessment to take place. Early intervention and specialist support can reduce the negative impact on future development.