Fine Motor Development, Pencil Control and "Pinchy Fingers"

Adequate strength of the muscles of the wrist, intrinsic muscles of the hand and of the finger muscles is necessary for fine eye hand coordination. The development of various grasps begins in infancy and development continues through the preschool years. The most important of these in fine coordination is the pincer grasp, which is achieved by placing the tips of the index finger and thumb together in a pinching action. We refer to these fingers as “THE PINCHY FINGERS”.

The three PINCHY FINGERS involved in producing a pincer grasp are also used for grasping a pencil and for cutting with scissors. Developing dexterity in these three fingers is vital for well-developed fine motor coordination.

It is generally accepted that a stable tripod grasp is the most effective grasp. The pencil is held a short distance up the shaft and is grasped by the thumb and index finger with the middle finger propping the pencil up from below. The index finger and thumb are flexed to create an open web space between them. By bending and straightening the thumb and fingers, the pencil can be effectively manipulated to create pencil strokes in a number of different directions.

Preschoolers should be given thick wax crayons or large wax squares in preference to thinner pencil, etc. Wax crayons and plastic pencils provide resistance when used on paper and are preferable for young children to use than felt tip pens, which provide very little resistance. It is however very motivating to use a variety of different textures, pens, pencils and crayons. Keep it FUN!!!

A variety of assistive pencil grips are available to assist the child who has not yet established a correct pencil grasp. Care should however be taken to ensure that the child develops a dynamic pencil grasp by strengthening the hand and fingers, and by improving dexterity in addition to using any assistive device such as a pencil grip.  A pencil grip can often assist a child in gaining confidence as it helps him remember how to hold his pencil.  The softer gummy textured pencil grips can also assist in organising the child as the texture of the pencil grip provides soothing tactile input and squeezing the grip or holding it firmly offers his muscles gentle resistance, which is likely to be organising for him.

Improving a Child's Pencil Grip

In order to improve a child's pencil grip one must first offer activities, which will strengthen the muscles of the hands and fingers and then improve manipulative hand skills and dexterity.  Hands and fingers can be strengthened by kneading playdough and firm resisted substances, such as TheraPutty, tearing paper, scrunching paper, squeezing tin foil, playing with stress balls and soft squeeze eggs or Eggsercisers, and tasks such as kneading bread or biscuit dough.  TheraPutty offers a versatile tool since it does not dry out or crack and can in fact last for years.  The child can push small objects such as pegboard pegs or plastic matchsticks into the TheraPutty, and can pull the TheraPutty over the objects to hide them inside the TheraPutty. Later, the child can "dig" into the TheraPutty with his fingers to find the buried plastic pegs. This activity offers considerable resistance for muscles of the thumb middle and index fingers.  (Working on such a resisted task can also be rather organising for the child who has sensory modulation difficulties).

Rolling small pieces of playdough between the thumb and index finger can assist in strengthening "pinchy fingers", and can also improve finger dexterity. Encourage the child to roll long thin baby snakes, tiny bird's eggs, and skinny sausages. By using different colours of playdough you can also encourage some creativity in this task.

Children love to mix playdough. You can encourage your child to experiment with mixing two different colours of playdough to make a third colour.  If the two bits of different coloured dough fill the child's hand, the muscles of the whole hand will be strengthened. But if the child only mixes a small piece of each colour using only the fingertips of the "pinchy fingers" this will work individual fingers more effectively.

In order to assume a correct pencil grip, the child also need to have good sensory feedback from the fingers and hands as to the position of the finger and the child also needs to be able to accurately sense the position of the pencil in his hands. By using the hands and fingers in activities, such as those described above, sensory feedback from the skin and muscles will also improve. Sometimes, however, it may also be helpful to offer the child some additional tools to use. The use of a thick tripod pencil can help the child to feel that his thumb, index, and middle finger each have their place on the pencil shaft.  Lyra Groove pencils can also assist in this regard as the grooves also provide the child with good feedback and help prevent his fingers from sliding down the pencil shaft.  Tripod Pencil Grips, Stetro Pencil Grips, The Pencil Grip, and the Crossover Pencil Grip can also be used to reinforce the correct Pencil Grip.  It is, however, important that these are not used without also ensuring that the child's hand, finger strength, and dexterity are also addressed.

What Constitutes a Correct Pencil Grip?

Correct pencil grasp involves holding the pencil between the pads of the thumb and index finger with the middle finger supporting the pencil from underneath. The web space between the thumb and index finger should remain loosely open.

Avoid letting the child grasp so tightly that this web space becomes closed. An open thumb web space will allow for flexible movement of the thumb joint, and the first joint of the index finger.

Also look out for the child who curls his thumb right around and over the pencil. This crossing over of the thumb onto the index finger provides some stability but no flexibility. (The Crossover Pencil Grip can assist in discouraging this type of incorrect pencil grasp). As the child makes small circular pencil movements or small movements back and forth with the pencil, they should bend and straighten the joints of the index finger and thumb as they move the pencil back and forth.