One of the most popular questions I’m asked as is: “What kind of grasp should my toddler have at this age?” There are several, if not hundreds of resources on the internet with differing opinions on the ages of fine motor development. I’m not here to add to that list. I am here to discuss the particular progression of pencil grasp development in toddlers (though for toddlers, it’s typically a crayon or marker). Below are some age ranges when the grasps are usually expected to develop by. I do want to stress that these are age ranges, not official milestones. Every child is different. While there are some developmental progressions that we typically see, your child may not follow the progression exactly, but their fine motor skills may develop appropriately anyway. Now on to the post.
2 Sides of the Hand
In relation to handwriting and grasp patterns, we typically divide the hand into 2 sides: with the index and pinky finger paired together as the “power” side of the hand. The thumb and index finger are used for precision.
1st grasp pattern: Power grasp, age 1-2
Babies develop the power side (ring and pinky side) of their hand first. For example, when they do a “raking” motion to pick up peas or cheerios from the highchair trey. The first grasp pattern typically to develop around age 1 to 2 is the power, or fisted grasp. At this stage, toddlers are just getting used to holding on to a crayon, chalk, or marker and there is no precision in their drawings.
2nd grasp pattern: Digital pronate, age 2-3
As the child develops more proximal stability (i.e. strength in their arm muscles, trunk muscles), they can start using the precision side of their hand (thumb and index finger). Because they still haven’t quite figured out how to efficiently separate the both sides of their hand, the grasp still looks bit awkward. Drawing and writing movements are still being controlled by the shoulder and arm.
3rd grasp pattern: Quadrupod and Tripod
Once we reach this 3rd grasp pattern, you will see several variations based on the placement of the thumb on the pencil shaft, and how open or closed the webspace (space between the thumb and index finger) is. These are the 2 general grasp patterns that we see. A quadrupod grasp controls the pencil by the thumb, index finger and middle finger while being supported by the ring finger. A tripod grasp controls the pencil with the thumb and index finger, supported by the middle finger with both the ring finger and pinky fingers tucked into the palm.
These grasp patterns are the most functional and appropriate for fine motor precision such as writing letters and drawing shapes. By now, proximal stability (trunk stability and arm stability) has improved so that the hand can rest on the power side and most of the strokes/movements of the pencil can come from the precision side of the hand.
Function, Function, Function!
I just wanted to reiterate that every child is different. The crayon grasp development may look different for your child but they might still be able to function normally in fine motor tasks. That’s the keyword here: FUNCTION. No matter what kind of awkward grasp you think your child or student might have, the first question I ask is: IS IT FUNCTIONAL? Is the child able to sustain a writing task without fatiguing quicker than peers? Is the child able to form age appropriate legible letters and drawings? If the answer to these 2 questions is yes, then typically no intervention or added pencil grip is needed. If your school aged child fatigues quickly with fine motor tasks, displays light pencil pressure, cannot keep up with the class in terms of writing or drawing quality, you might want to check in with an occupational therapist or your pediatrician for a referral.