All throughout occupational therapy school, I heard the phrase “proximal stability equals distal mobility,” but it was not until I did my fieldwork and started my career that I appreciated the importance of that saying. All it really means is if your core is stable then your limbs, from your shoulders all the way to your fingertips, will be able to move more appropriately and functionally. As a child grows, their gross motor skills come before their fine motor skills. Therefore, it is important to start building their “proximal stability” as soon as possible gin order to eventually aid in the growth of “distal mobility.” Gross motor skills are big movements that involve full body motions such as jumping, running, crawling, skipping, etc. On the other hand, fine motor skills involve smaller movements such as stringing beads, stacking blocks, building puzzles, playing the guitar, and for the purpose of this post: handwriting and holding a writing a utensil. Just like any other developmental milestones, pencil grips come in different stages. (Of course, take this next information with a grain of salt because these are the averages.) There are several different pencil grasps out there, but these are the important ones for developmental purposes:
A. Developmental Grasps
· Palmar-Supinate Grasp (also called the “full fist” grasp): 1 – 1 ½ years old
· Digital Pronate Grasp (the index finger is pointed downward): 2 years old
· Multi-Finger Transitional Grasp (5-finger grasp): 3 years old
Not all children experience this stage
B. Functional Grasps
· Tripod Grasps
Static Tripod (no individual finger movement/thumb, index, & middle are on the writing utensil): 3 – 4 years old
Dynamic Tripod (same as static, but there is individual finger movement): 4 ½ - 6 years old (This is what we want)
There are also grasps that we consider “dysfunctional.” These grasps include thumb wrap and thumb tuck, which is where the thumb is either wrapped around to rest on the index finger or tucked under the index finger. With these grasps, the web space between the thumb and the index finger is closed off. Therefore, there is a decrease in the ability to use the thumb, index, and middle fingers as a unit and the child is forced
to use their wrist, elbow, and in some cases, their shoulder, in order to write. For a lack of better words, we don’t want that. We want that web space to be open to leave more room for the pencil to sit and to increase finger movements. A thumb wrap grasp can also hinder a child’s ability to see around their pencil when they write. This can become even more complicated if the child is left hand dominant. We will sometimes see dysfunctional grasps in our kids 6 years and older. With
these grasps, we try to use intervention methods to assist them in converting their grasps over into a tripod grasp. Some of these interventions include placing a grip on their pencil that forces their fingers into a tripod grasp, using a slant board for wrist position purposes, using a triangular pencil, etc. Unfortunately, after around the age of 6 or 7, it is difficult to quickly change a child’s grasp and it becomes even more difficult once they are in middle school and high school. But we certainly try!
So why do pencil grasps matter more than ever and how do we go about helping our children to improve their grasp? The answer is simple: give your child a crayon when they are young and allow them to simply scribble and explore the concept of coloring. Over the last ten years or so, we have become a technology-filled world. You see people walking on the street with their face buried in their phone. You go out to dinner and you see a family with either the parents staring at their phones, the kids playing on tablets, or worse: you see both happening at the same table. Do they even give out coloring sheets and crayons at restaurants anymore? Well, as the old Tootsie Roll commercials used to say: “the world may never know.” So, while we cannot make our children completely avoid the pull of technology, we can still remind them of the
importance of handwriting and correctly holding a writing utensil. Nowadays, our children are learning how to “swipe” rather than hold a crayon to simply scribble on the paper. This is an issue because it is causing them to lose their ability to effectively hold crayons, markers, and pencils. While most of the world sends emails, texts, or the occasional message on Facebook, I am here to tell you that there is nothing like a handwritten note or letter. I know what you are going to say though. “It takes too long.,” “Stamps are expensive.,” or “I could easily just call the person on the phone or text them.” Yes. You would be correct on all these accounts, but everyone loves mail or a post-it note that simply says, “Have a great day!” Therefore, we need to teach this generation and future generations about the importance of writing.
To close, I will tell you a little disclaimer about myself: I have a thumb wrap grasp and I am doing fine. However, my hand gets very tired if I write too much, my forearm cramps because I’m using my wrist and forearm muscles rather than individual finger movements, and there’s no room to even try individual finger movements because my web space is so closed off. But is it the end of the world if your child does not have a static or dynamic tripod pencil grasp, by the age of 6? No, it is not. But will writing be easier for them if they learn intervention techniques that will aid in their success to utilize a tripod grasp? Absolutely. So, all in all, to answer the burning question of whether pencil grips really matter, the answer is yes! Set your child up for success by knowing the developmental stages and aiding in the process to ultimately get to a dynamic tripod grasp.
These resources include great activities to do with your child in order to work on pencil grasp:
By: Grace Ferrara, OTR/D