Pencil grip and finger movements: what is really important?

A good pencil grip allows the child to keep the wrist steady and make small movements of the fingers to move the pen tip in different direction to create short straight and curved lines. 

Most children will adopt a ideal tripod grip as this suites the structure of their hands. But many children adopt an alternative grip, especially children with hypermobile hand joints. These adapted grip are functional as they provide both stability as well as allow small finger movements.  

Research has shown that an ideal pencil grip is not needed for fluent handwriting. In fact, trying to change a functional adapted grip often creates problems for the child.  

The message is: any grip that is comfortable and allows a child make small bending and straightening movements of the fingers along with very small wrist movements is acceptable.

Attempting to change a functional adapted grip into an ideal tripod grip will often make handwriting difficult and tiring for the child. It creates a problem rather than solving one. 

Development of pencil grip 

Young children hold the pencil in what is called a palmar grip.

The pencil is held in the palm and the pencil point sticks out between the thumb and forefinger. The wrist is held straight and forearm is twisted downwards. The young child may also hold the marker in the palm of the hand with the point protruding past the little finger.  
palmar grip.jpg    palmar grip 1.jpg
Sometime between 3 and 4 years the child will usually change the position of the pencil in the hand so that the front end of the pencil shaft is held by the fingers and the rear end is supported between the thumb and the forefinger.  The wrist is held straight.
grip 1.jpg
This position of the pencil in the hand allows the child the hold the wrist steady and use movements of the shoulder and elbow to draw medium and long lines in all directions. 
When the wrist is held steady and straight the end of the pencil points past the shoulder of the drawing arm. 

long pencil.jpg

Pencil grip and finger movements 

The tripod grip is the most common configuration of the fingers on the pencil shaft . 
  • The pencil shaft is supported between the thumb and the middle finger and the forefinger rests on the top of the pencil shaft.  
  • The ring and the little finger rest lightly in the palm of the hand. 
In this position small bending movements of the  fingers can move the pencil tip up and down on the paper. 
     diagonal down_1.jpg    diagonal down 1.jpg

Hypermobility and grip configuration

Children with hypermobile finger joints usually use an adapted tripod grip to provide a more stable grip position. 
  • The shaft pencil is supported by the thumb against the base of the forefinger and the side of the middle finger.
  • The tip of the forefinger rests against the shaft of the pencil close to the tip. 
  • This adapted grip still allows the child to make small bending movements of the fingers to move the pencil tip. 
adapted grip 1 (1).jpg    

Take time to observe finger movements for drawing short lines

Try the following  Position your arm vertically on the page. Now draw a short up and down lines. You will probably notice that to draw these short lines you are bending and extending the fingers while the thumb stays straight. Now draw several  short back-and-forth horizontal lines.  Notice that this time you probably using small wrist movement to produce the lines.

Lastly draw a spiral.  Drawing circles uses a combination of finger bending and small wrist movements. 

When does a grip need to be changed?  

The important thing to pay attention to when assessing a child's grip is not whether it conforms to some ideal but rather whether the grip allows the child to make small finger movements to control the point of the marker (pen or pencil). 

If the fingers are too flexed (bent) and the marker is gripped too strongly the child has difficulty making small flexing (bending) and extending (straightening) movements of the fingers. Instead the child will use wrist movement to move the pencil tip. 

adapted grip 1 (1).jpg    adapted grip 2_0 (1).jpg
A child may hold the pen with the thumb or fingers very straight. In this case the child will also tend to use wrist movements to move the pen point to produce short strokes. 
grip 8.jpg      Hypermobile hand grip.jpg  
The hild may also hold the pencil with all the fingers . 
 4 finger grip_0.jpg    4 finger grip .jpg   

Does using a pencil grip help? 

Many teachers and therapists recommend the use of a pencil grip to improve the grip configuration.  It is assumed that use of a pencil grip will improve grip configuration and this will impact on effective pencil manipulation. 
There is no evidence to support this notion. 
Helping the child to adopt a grip that allows for effective finger action and then working on activities that train effective finger action for drawing short lines is an better option for improving a child's pencil manipulation skills.