Several people have asked me what types of toys and games they can get for their children to help them work on pencil grasp, without actually using a pencil. They have shared with me that their kiddos desperately need to work on being able to hold their pencil better but, unfortunately, their kids dislike completing paper-and-pencil worksheets because they are difficult and boring. (Don’t worry, you’re not alone!)
So today I thought I’d take the opportunity to share with you some toys and games to help kids with their pencil grasp…without using a pencil!
Before we dive into the list, I want to share a little bit of background info with you so you have a better understanding of what goes into developing a good pencil grasp and why I’m recommending certain toys and games.
There are actually many things that contribute to the development of a good, efficient pencil grasp. Some examples include core strength and stability, shoulder strength and stability, hand and finger strength, good muscle tone, the ability to isolate particular fingers and coordinate their movements and, perhaps most importantly, separation of the two sides of the hand.
When I say “separation of the two sides of the hand”, I’m talking about the ability to use the thumb, pointer, and middle finger (the “radial” or thumb side of the hand) separately from the ring finger and pinky (the “ulnar” or pinky side of the hand). This means the pinky and ring finger curl up in the palm to stabilize the hand and wrist, which frees up the thumb, index, and middle fingers to do their work during activities such as coloring or cutting. You might also hear this called “dissociation of the two sides of the hand”, which is referring to the same concept — the skilled fingers (thumb, pointer, middle) can “dissociate” (work separately) from the stabilizing fingers (ring and pinky) in order to work with skill and precision. Without going into too much details, the skill side and stabilizing sides of the hand are controlled (“innervated”) by different nerves, both for motor and sensory function, which contributes to their ability to develop different skill sets. Isn’t that cool?
In typical hand development, separation or dissociation of the two sides of the hand begins to develop after approximately two years of age. This is when children start to have the physical capacity to experiment with using the well-known tripod grasp, or lesser-known quadrupod grasp. A tripod grasp basically just means there are three fingers working together to control the fine motor tool (thumb and pointer pinch, tool rests on knuckle of middle finger), while a quadrupod grasp simply adds a fourth finger for control (thumb, pointer, and middle pinch, tool rests on knuckle of ring finger).
Between two to three years of age is also when you start to see kiddos demonstrate an in-hand manipulation skill called “palm-to-finger translation”. This is the ability to hold several small items in their palm (such as marbles, coins, or pieces of cereal), and then use only one hand to scoot those items out to their fingertips so they can use them one at a time. This is a skill that requires an improved ability to isolate the movements of the thumb and is closely tied to the development of dissociation of the two sides of the hand.
Are you starting to see how important it is for kids ages 2+ to start developing skill and strength with that “skill side” of the hand? Cindy at Your Kids OT shares a great explanation of how hand dissociation affects activity performance, plus ideas for how to encourage development of this skill. And Therapy Street for Kids has an informative page about the development of hand arches (the muscles responsible for everything I have mentioned in this post), plus a gazillion activity ideas to help develop the arches of the hand.
So, taking all this info into consideration, here is a juicy tidbit I want you to know:
Pinching and playing with tongs, chopsticks, and tweezers is a GREAT way to help kids work on hand dissociation and develop their pencil grasp, without forcing them to use a pencil! Tong, chopstick, and tweezer play encourages the skill side of the hand to do its work, separate from the stabilizing side. It provides repetitive practice for coordination and strengthening in the fingers and small muscles of the hand and, for many kids, it’s FUN!
There are tons of ways to play with tongs, chopsticks, or tweezers without having to buy a special game, simply using items from around your house. In fact, I have a post on how to make your own kiddie chopsticks, plus another post on 50 fun ways to play with tongs that you might find helpful!
However, if you are looking for a toy, game, or gift that will help the child in your life improve their hand skills and, ultimately, their pencil grasp, then I’ve got a great list for you! Affiliate links are included for your convenience (see full disclosure here).
In order to gain maximum benefit, be sure you encourage either a tripod or quadrupod grasp with the tongs or tweezers, with the end of the thumb squeezing the stick (rather than the thumb “wrapping” around the stick up at the knuckle). It’s normal for a child’s grasp on tongs to be inconsistent and inaccurate when starting out. Don’t expect perfection right away. Just like any skill, it takes consistent practice!
If your kiddo is having a hard time keeping those last two or three fingers tucked into the palm, try using Trick #3 from my post on helping kids learn to hold their pencil correctly. You can also have them make an “L” with their thumb and index finger, and then pinch the tongs from that position. I find this really helps a lot of kids who struggle to figure out how to hold the tongs or pencil on their own.
Okay, on to the list of toys and games to help with pencil grasp! (Click on the images to be taken to each product listing on Amazon.)
Toys and Games to Help with Pencil Grasp:
Stocking Stuffers to Support Development of Pencil Grasp:
Games You Can Modify to Work on Pencil Grasp (Use Tongs Instead of Fingers):
Tongs & Related Tools You Can Use to Strengthen Pencil Grasp Muscles:
Skinny Mini Squeezers (for littler kids)
Skinny Squeezers (for bigger kids)
For resources you can (legally) download to your computer or print for your own use, check out these helpful e-books from OT Mom, packed with practical, ready-to-use activity ideas:
OT Mom’s Fine Motor Bundle (Discounted price on Fine Motor Activities plus Scissor Skills Activities plus FREE Bonus Cutting Template)
I hope this post has been helpful and has given you a better idea of what kinds of games and activities can support the pencil grasp of the child in your life!