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Helping Children Develop a Tripod Pencil Grasp

written by: Barbara Smith • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 8/2/2012

Children with learning disabilities often have decreased muscle tone, sensory awareness and motor planning skills that impact their abilities to develop the tripod pencil grasp. Helping children to develop a tripod pencil grasp may promote successful handwriting.

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    Babies and Toddlers Develop Fine-Motor Control That Leads to writing

    Children actually begin to develop the dexterity that leads to writing at a very young age. In fact, as a baby learns to use the index pencil grasp finger and thumb together to pick up tiny objects, she is already learning how to control the “skill" side of the hand that is used for precision. Children between one and two years of age typically develop the following manipulation skills that develop coordination between the index and middle fingers and thumb:

    • Place large pegs in a board
    • String large beads
    • Stack one-inch blocks

    This is also a great age to introduce “drawing" lines in whip cream using the index finger. This activity will strengthen the skill side of the hand while also introducing the concept of forming lines.

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    Pre-School Crayons Promote the Tripod Pencil Grasp

    The typical toddler grasps a pencil using the entire palm with the thumb near the top and is not ready to control it effectively. However, between two and three years of age, children start to grasp with the fingers and thumb facing downward near the paper. This should be encouraged by offering bulb-shaped preschool crayons. These crayons open up the web space--the fleshy area between the thumb and index finger. Breaking off small pieces of thick crayons or chalk is also a great strategy to encourage this type of grasp since the small pieces will be too small to grasp inside the palm.

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    Activities to Develop Hand Strength and Coordination

    Three to five-year-old children have the hand skills to use lots of toys that strengthen the skill side of the hand. Suggested toys and activities that are great in helping children develop a tripod pencil grasp include:

    • Water squirt toys
    • Toy nuts and bolts
    • Opening and closing screw caps
    • Squeezing clothes pins open and closed
    • Children’s toy chop sticks or tongs

    Since these activities involve using the small hand muscles and manipulating, they also promote sensory awareness and motor planning skills. Children typically develop and then refine the tripod grasp between three and six years of age. However, it is very important that parents and educators encourage preschool-aged children to spend their time playing with these types of manipulation toys and engaging in activities that can be performed in the vertical plane (such as a MagnaDoodle toy attached to the wall or LIghtBrite).

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    Strategies to help Kindergarten and Grade School Children Develop an Effective Writing Grasp

    During the Kindergarten year and early grades children should be encouraged to write on vertical surfaces as described. Teachers may explore different pencil sizes and types of paper to see which work best for individual children. Given the right early fine-motor experiences, writing tools and set-up, most school children learn how to use the tripod pencil grasp.However, older children who struggle with controlling a pencil may benefit from use of a pencil grip, using an alternative to the tripod grasp and teacher consultation with an occupational therapist.