Writing and Pencil Grip

Holding a pencil or crayon naturally develops. Just like other facets of development, some children need more support than others, but most children will switch from a scribble grip to a pointer grip even if you don’t show them or they don’t spend a lot of time coloring.

When an infant first grabs a crayon, she grabs it however she wants. The toddler graduates to a traditional grab (fist with pinky finger nearest to crayon tip) and scribbles hard back and forth. Sometime in the toddler years, before the age of 3, she will switch to trying to hold a crayon like a pencil or at least go back and forth between scribbling grip and pencil grip. Sometime between 3 and 4yrs, the child will usually give up the scribbling grip permanently (unless they are purposefully trying to get the thick scribbling effect on occasion). This is just part of the brain developing handedness and the large region that controls the first finger. It starts developing this region from the time you see your young infant reach out for a cheerio or crumb with her first finger only.

After that, it is up to the kindergarten teacher to refine holding a pencil and work on beginning writing skills. Usually this kind of instruction persists until third grade, when most kids learn cursive. After that, it dies and you see some kids holding their pencils in unique ways again.

So don’t worry too much about the crayon/pencil grip thing. Until about the age of five, there is still lots of room for kids to experiment with hands, grips, position, etc. If you want to teach them, show them how you hold a pencil and then put your hand over their hand while they hold it. Then help them form some letters or draw a little figure. Kids usually learn to draw lines and shapes first, so you can start with that. Circle, triangle, square. Vertical line, horizontal line, zig-zag. That’s about all they need when they’re one and two.

When the child enters preschool, the teacher will work on pre-writing skills by giving them easy mazes, letters to trace, matching games with lines, etc. If your child is 3 or 4 and still not holding a crayon right, they will show them. Usually there is not a problem and they just need to be reminded. But if there are other warning signs, she might bring them up. Some signs include:

  • inability to press hard, flimsy grip
  • too-hard grip
  • not “crossing the midline” (taking the same hand to go right and left on the paper, back and forth; some kids will only draw on half the paper, or they will switch hands depending on what side they want to write on)
  • tremors
  • can’t stay on the paper
  • lack of ability to make small marks
  • inability to make any recognizable image (i.e. circle for a 3year old, happy face for a 4year old, stick man for a 5year old), even with effort

And yet, there is still much freedom for kindergarten kids (4 and 5year olds) to figure things out. Some definitely know which hand they use, some still need time to cement which hand they prefer to write with, especially if they are lefties. Some can color inside the lines, some still need lots of practice. Some have been drawing shapes for years and can make little lines and circles for their letters, and others still have pretty bad skills at five years old. Some kids are real artists and others still look like…um, Picasso. On the average, I’d say it’s pretty common for kids to be able to start making letters by five, and to draw some stereotypical pictures, and to spend time on just one page in a coloring book, but you don’t necessarily need to rush to a therapist if they can’t. Just start working on writing more religiously at home. Use a sand or a salt try to make letters big first, then move to kiddie paper with the solid/dashed lines. Make “cards” for Daddy where they practice writing a message and their name. Or encourage kids that age to “draw a picture” for Grandma where they work at telling a story and making something representable on one piece of paper. Then you can practice making small figures and lining up realistic colors to them.

For handedness in particular, put a crayon in front of your child and see which hand he uses to pick it up with. That is usually a reliable guide, more reliable than which hand they use for a spoon or cup. (Some kids who will be lefties continue to use their right hand for these skills but switch to left for crayons.) Watch for a minute to see if he switches back and forth from one hand to another, or he keeps the same hand. If he keeps it the same, he’s probably chosen a preference. If he switches back and forth, then he might not have decided yet (or more accurately, the brain has not decided yet). There may be a greater chance that he’ll be left-handed rather than right in that case too. There is some evidence that you can influence a child’s hand preference, but this is usually the case earlier than you think (i.e. in the infant or first toddler year). You shouldn’t try to fool around with a three or four year old’s preference, and I probably would leave it alone during the earlier years too. In the old days, they used to be prejudiced against left-handers and tried to make them right-handed, but no-one does this anymore. There is no reason to fear that left-handers will suffer in any way that right-handers don’t, except for the occasional adult gripe that the English language is made for right-handers rather than left because you write from left to right 🙂

p.s.  It is true that girls develop fine motor skills earlier than boys, so you may see your little girl more interested in writing or holding her crayon the right way earlier than boys.


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