Developing the Tripod Grasp

Just as a baby gradually develops more mature grasps (such as the pincer) to hold and manipulate objects, her grasp on a pencil (and other writing tools) will become increasingly efficient and effective between ages one and 6 years. Controlling a writing tool is just one of several pre-writing skills a child learns before forming letters and numbers.

What are Pre-writing Skills?

Pre-writing skills refer to abilities to grasp a writing tool to form lines and circles and other shapes. Here are a few milestones:

  • Two-year-old children typically learn to form vertical and horizontal lines.
  • Three-year-old children typically learn to copy a cross and draw a circle without a model
  • Between 4 and 5 years of age children typically learn to imitate or copy more complex shapes such as diagonal lines,  diagonal X s, squares and triangles.

Other examples of "pre-writing skills include:

  • using the index finger or a tool to form lines and shapes perhaps in shaving cream, wet corn starch , pudding in a tray or a mermaid pillow (shown above).
  • understanding directionality concepts, such as top and bottom and across and around. Directionality is the awareness of spatial positions.
  • Adequate postural control to stabilize  the arm and hand while using the index finger or writing tools to form lines and shapes
  • bilateral hand skills to stabilize paper or objects while coloring or forming lines and shapes
  • functional visual skills to focus on a model to copy or imitate and form the lines and shapes required to form letters.

The Palmar-Supinate Grasp

The palmar-supinate grasp develops typically between 1 to 1 1/2 years of age.  The child will not yet have the control to hold writing tools, such as markers or crayons with the fingers. He will grasp the tool fisted tightly inside the palm in the same way a six-month-old baby grasped a rattle. The pinky side of the hand will be close to the paper and the thumb will be wrapped around the index finger. His wrist will be slightly flexed (bent), and his arm and hand will move as a unit, similar to scrubbing a table with a sponge. Over the next four to five years, a child will develop the coordination to control a pencil using finger movements.

Between 12 and 18 months of age, all you need to do is provide the paper, writing tools, and lots of praise for making colors appear on the paper. Offer short, thick crayons, markers, paint brushes, or chalk. These will be easiest for a toddler's short fingers to grasp.

Continue to encourage "drawing" with the index finger in finger paints and other messy media to prepare your baby to create lines and circles. The child's grasp will gradually evolve into one in which the fingers face downward. Eventually, this will lead to the digital pronate grasp

The Digital-Pronate Grasp

The digital pronate grasp typically develops between ages 2 to 3 years. The writing tool is held with all the fingers and thumb with the pencil tip facing downward. The wrist is straight or flexed, and the forearm is pronated so that the palm faces downward with the arm positioned upward away from the body instead of supported on the writing surface close to the body. Because a two-year-old's forearm, wrist, and fingers continue to move as a unit it is challenging to control the pencil. This will change when the three-year-old uses mostly finger and thumb movements with the wrist and forearm helping to stabilize his hand as it travels across the paper. However, some children develop a more adult-like grasp with the pencil held between the thumb and fingers as they approach the third birthday.

As previously mentioned, using short, thick crayons, chalk or other tools helps children to point the fingers downward because they are too small or thick to fit inside a fisted hand.

Preschool crayons with a large bulb shape on top also promote a grasp with the fingers facing downward. These crayons open up the round web space. The web space is the large round space between the thumb and index finger created when they oppose each other to pick up a tiny object or grasp a writing tool. As children develop mature pencil grasps, they typically find it more comfortable and easier to write when the web space is open.

The Static Tripod Pencil Grasp

The static tripod grasp typically develops between 3 1/2 and 4 years of age. Perhaps  using a bulb-shaped crayon has taught your younger child to grasp with the fingers facing downward. Now a typically developing three-year-old child may have the finger dexterity to use the static tripod pencil grasp. As the name implies, the tripod grasp involves three fingers, which likens it to the three- legged device that stabilizes your camera. The static tripod grasp involves grasping the pencil near the point approximately between the index and middle fingers and thumb, forming a tripod.

Occupational therapists frequently recommend use of slant boards or writing on vertical surfaces above eye level because this will automatically position the wrist in the best manner to control the pencil and help the thumb form the tripod shape with the index and middle fingers.

Choosing a writing tool

Choosing the type of writing tools to offer depends on your child's abilities. Three-year-old children who do not yet consistently grasp writing tools with the fingers facing downward should use the conical-shaped pre-school crayons that promote the digital pronate grasp. Some children use the static tripod grasp best when using tools such as markers, chalk, or pencils that have large diameters because then they do not need to squeeze as tightly to control.

Notice how tightly this little boy is grasping the skinny crayon. The web space is NOT open. He has good motor control but his hand may fatigue sooner than when using a tool with a larger diameter. Some children may find thin pencils easier to control. Choosing writing tools may take some trial and error!

The Dynamic Tripod Grasp

Children typically develop the dynamic tripod grasp beween 4 1/2 and 6 years of age. The wrist is slightly extended with the pencil grasped close to it's tip between the pads of the middle and index fingers and thumb. The ring and pinky fingers are flexed against the palm to stabilize the three "tripod" fingers with enough precision and control to draw tiny cicles. The position of the three fingers at the tip opens the web space and the pencil rests against the fleshy area between them.

Continue to offer large markers, chalk, paintbrushes, pencils and other tools. The motorized pen shown above is not only large and easy to grasp, the vibration can be motivating and fun while waking up the hands with sensory stimulation!

Remind your child to grasp about an inch from the point. Some writing tools are sold with a visual or tactile cue for finger placement. In addition, a sticker, mark or rubber band may be placed on writing tools to indicate where to position the fingers.

Pencil Grips 

Some children struggle with pencil grasp and motor control.  Please consult with an occupational therapist to determine your child's needs!

Pencil grips are sold in educational and therapeutic stores and catalogs. Pencils fit inside the grips, making the grasping surface larger. Pencil grips are useful if the child already has well developed hand arches and muscles. Then the grips can help reinforce proper finger positioning. Some grips have visual markings or indentations that indicate where the fingers should be positioned. Many children enjoy using grips because the rubber or foam texture feels good and prevents the fingers from slipping. However, avoid the cute toys that are sometimes added to the eraser end of pencils because that extra weight may interfere with proper wrist positioning.

Some children benefit from an extra large, home made pencil grip made by inserting the tool through a ball!

A short while back, fidget spinners were the rage. So I thought they would be a fun tool to help develop the tripod pencil grasp.....

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