As a pediatric occupational therapist, I often receive questions from concerned parents and teachers about whether their child is on track with their handwriting development. So today I wanted to share with you about the developmental progression of handwriting skills so you can keep these milestones in mind when tracking your child’s handwriting development!
DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PENCIL GRASP
Pencil grasp is usually the most obvious fine motor marker of how a child’s handwriting development is coming along, and it’s often the one I get asked about the most by concerned adults. Though handwriting development begins to take place well before a child ever picks up a pencil, these are the milestones to keep in mind when looking at how your child is holding their crayon, marker, or pencil.
1 to 1.5 years – Palmar Supinate
The crayon or marker is held in the palm (“palmar”) with the thumb on top in a slight forearm-up (“supinated”) position. This is considered a “primitive” grasp and typically accompanies the “scribbling” stage. Scribbling movements are typically initiated by the shoulder and elbow, which involve larger muscle groups and a relatively low level of precision.
2-3 years – Digital Pronate
The child transitions to holding the crayon or marker with the whole hand while the pointer finger (“digit”) points to the tip and the forearm rotates to point down toward the paper (“pronated”). This is considered a “transitional” grasp and is typically present when little ones are learning to make lines and circles. Coloring and early drawing movements still come from the larger muscle groups and typically involve large strokes, however, there may be a higher level of control over the tool compared to the Palmar Supinate grasp.
3.5 to 4 years – Static Tripod
The child can now hold the crayon or marker with the thumb and index finger while resting it on the knuckle of the middle finger. This means there are a total of three fingers controlling the tool (“tri” = “three”). Movements during coloring and drawing are initiated from the larger joints of the arm such as the shoulder and elbow, while the fingers remain “static” and the hand moves as one unit. This grasp is typically present around the same age that kids are becoming “pre-writers” and learning to make shapes such as a cross and square.
When the Static Tripod is first developing, you may see the wrist flexed (bent forward) and “floating” above the writing surface, whether the child is working on paper flat on a table or coloring on a vertical chalkboard (as pictured above). However, as kids become more comfortable and confident in this position, they are then usually able to transition to resting their forearm on the table as they color or draw. Interestingly, research has found that nearly 50% of three-year-olds are already able to use a tripod grasp, and grasp maturity at this age tends to be higher for girls than for boys. Regardless of when it occurs, the shift from Digital Pronate to Static Tripod occurs is a BIG one! It means kids have moved from a “toddler” grasp to a “big kid” grasp, and that is a HUGE deal in the world of fine motor development!
You may see kids use a grasp similar to this one, called the “Static Quadrupod.” It is similar to the Static Tripod, but there is just one extra finger pinching the marker. So three fingers pinch and one supports the tool, for a total of four (“quad” = “four”). This Static Quadrupod grasp is just as functional and age-appropriate as its Static Tripod counterpart, and is pictured below for your reference.
4.5 to 5 years – Dynamic Tripod
The child continues with the same grasp pattern of pinching with thumb and index finger while resting the crayon, marker, or pencil on the knuckle of the middle finger. However, the pinky and ring fingers can now tuck themselves securely into the palm to stabilize the arch of the hand and the middle finger, the wrist is consistently positioned in slight extension (bent back), and the forearm and pinky-side of the hand (the “ulnar” side) are comfortably stabilized on the table. This means movements are now able to be initiated from the first three fingers and wrist while making vertical and horizontal strokes, rather than from the elbow and shoulder.
This “dynamic” grasp allows for more precision and detail during tasks such as coloring within the lines or within smaller spaces, drawing with more detail, and tracing or writing letters with more precision. It is around this age that children demonstrate an emerging ability to form diagonal strokes when coloring and/or drawing shapes. Once kids can consistently utilize a Dynamic Tripod grasp, it means they are one step closer to being ready for formal writing instruction!
A similar grasp you may see kids this age use is one we refer to as the “Dynamic Quadrupod” grasp. Like I mentioned earlier, one extra finger is used for pinching and controlling the pencil (for a total of three pinching fingers and one stabilizing finger), and it is just as effective and age-appropriate as the Dynamic Tripod. I have included a picture of the Dynamic Quadrupod below for your reference.
Now, before you tell me that your child’s grasp doesn’t seem to match any of these pictures, let me say it is common for pre-writers to experiment with a variety of grasps as their hands and pre-writing abilities develop. And it is also common for young kids (e.g., ages 1-3) to demonstrate different grasps on different types of tools, based on whether they are fat, skinny, long, short, or even how they are positioned in front of them.
Below are examples of a few other grasps you may see during the toddler and preschool years (these are not all the possibilities, but should give you the idea that variety isn’t uncommon in the early years):
Research has found that the Dynamic Tripod and Dynamic Quadrupod grasps aren’t the only functional grasps out there. The Lateral Tripod and Lateral Quadrupod are also just as effective. Click here to see a side-by-side comparison of all four grasp patterns.
DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF PRE-WRITING STROKES
Did you know children tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern of when they develop the ability to draw various shapes at different ages, known as “pre-writing strokes”? While pre-writing strokes are often thought of as the lines and circles needed for later learning how to write letters and numbers (that’s why they’re called “pre-writing” strokes, right?), they also prepare kids for being able to draw, which is another great indicator of pre-writing development!
Though pre-writing development is typically an area of early childhood development that is less familiar to parents and teachers as compared to pencil grasp development, I would argue that it is just as (if not more) important for helping prepare children to learn how to write. Kids’ writing and reading skills often develop alongside one another, and kids who are able to produce pre-writing strokes will often have an easier time learning how to write letters and numbers. Pre-writing development is important!
I want to make a quick note about some important terminology.
In pre-writing development, there is a difference between “imitating” and “copying.” “Imitation” means the child first watches a demonstration of the shape being formed, and then they immediately try to do what they just saw. “Copying” means the child is simply shown a picture or a model of the shape, and then they try to reproduce it on their own. Developmentally speaking, kids typically learn how to imitate drawing shapes before they learn how to copy them. Once they’ve learned how to copy those shapes, they can then begin to form a visual memory of them and draw them without a visual model. As with all developmental milestones, keep in mind that there is a wide range of “average” and children’s acquisition of these milestones can be influenced by their level of interest and attention.
- Imitating vertical lines, horizontal lines, circular scribbles
- Imitating cross
- Copying vertical line, horizontal line, circle
- Drawing circle without a model
- Imitating square
- Copying cross, square, right and left diagonal lines, X shape, some letters and numbers
- May be able to write own name
- Drawing a recognizable face with eyes, nose, mouth
- Drawing a basic stick figure with 2-4 body parts
- Coloring inside a circle and filling it at least halfway
- Copying triangle
- Printing own name
- Copying most capital and lowercase letters
- Drawing a person with at least 6 body parts
Looking for more information about handwriting? This post is part of the “Functional Skills for Kids“ series (#functionalskillsforkids), where 10 pediatric occupational and physical therapists break down a different functional skill of childhood each month. This month our focus is HANDWRITING! You can read all our posts on the many different factors that contribute to handwriting success by browsing below.
Handwriting Development, Sizing, Spacing & More | The Inspired Treehouse
Fine Motor Requirements for Handwriting | Therapy Fun Zone
Gross Motor Skills and Handwriting | Your Therapy Source
Sensory Processing & Handwriting Skills | Sugar Aunts
Handwriting and the Reluctant Writer | Kids Play Space
Activities to Practice Handwriting Skills at Home | Growing Hands-On Kids
Visual Perceptual Skills Required for Handwriting | Your Kids OT
Handwriting and Play | Miss Jaime OT
And you can read all of my monthly posts I’m contributing to this series RIGHT HERE!
Amundson, S. (2005). Prewriting and handwriting skills. In J. Case-Smith (Ed.), Occupational therapy for children (5th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier, Inc.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, March 27). Important Milestones: Your Child at Four Years. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-4yr.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, March 27). Important Milestones: Your Child at Five Years. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/milestones-5yr.html
Exner, C. (2005). Development of hand skills. In J. Case-Smith (Ed.), Occupational therapy for children (5th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier, Inc.
Smith, B. (2011). From Rattles to Writing: A parent’s guide to hand skills. Framingham: Therapro, Inc.
Yakimishyn, J. E., & Magill-Evans, J. (2002). Comparisons among tools, surface orientation, and pencil grasp for children 23 months of age. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 564–572.
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In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with MamaOT.com is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.
Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!
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