You sit down with 3-year-old Sophia to spend some time coloring in her favorite princess coloring book. She grabs a blue crayon, holds it with her whole hand as her pointer finger points toward the tip and her forearm turns down toward the paper, and begins to transform Princess Elsa’s dress into a scribbled blue.
Should you be concerned about how Sophia is holding the crayon?
As a pediatric occupational therapist, part of my job is to monitor and intervene with kids’ grasps on writing tools. Pencil grasp has the potential to positively or negatively influence a child’s ability to easily participate in school. I get many questions from parents of kiddos I work with about what type of grasp their child should be using for their age, as well as questions from concerned friends who are wondering if their child’s grasp is too much like a “caveman” or if it’s actually okay for their age. To be honest, I am always impressed and even a little surprised when parents ask about whether their child’s pencil grasp is age appropriate, since it’s not as “exciting” and obvious a developmental milestone as, say, crawling, walking, or jumping.
I have seen not-so-accurate information on the big bad Internet concerning what types of grasps are expected at different ages when it comes to using writing tools. So I wanted to take a minute to give you a rundown of what is expected in the typical developmental progression of pencil grasp, from ages one to five years.
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.
So back to the original question: Should you be concerned about how Sophia is holding the crayon?
My answer: No.
She is utilizing a Digital Pronate grasp, and she is right within the range of what is expected for her age!
For more reading on the topic of grasp and fine motor development, read my other posts:
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.