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25. How to hold a pencil

Sep 19, 2020 • 7 min read
25. How to hold a pencil

How do you hold a pencil? What is the correct grip?

The answer changes with your child's age.

For a toddler, any grip will do. It's often with a balled fist or all five fingers arranged in an impromptu combination. Exactly how doesn't matter. The important thing is that they're holding the pencil and starting to make marks.

But there is a skill progression and handwriting goes more smoothly if you don't leave it to chance.

Table of contents

Pencil grip develops over time

Finger isolation

Finger isolation is the ability to use one finger at a time. When babies begin using their hands, all their fingers move together at once - most of us are familiar with the full-fist grasp of a new baby around our own fingers. As they grow, babies begin to learn how to move individual fingers. At around 10 months they begin to use their index finger to point and to push buttons. As they grow stronger and more co-ordinated they’ll begin to isolate more fingers. It sounds a simple thing but it’s important to encourage it from early on as it forms the foundations for the many fine motor skills children use when they start school. From grasping pencils and using scissors to doing up buttons and tying laces, playing instruments and typing on a keyboard.

Try these simple ways to develop finger isolation while having fun:

  • Sing nursery rhymes with finger wiggling actions, like Incey Wincey Spider and Twinkle Twinkle
  • Count using fingers (moving one finger at a time). Sing One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Once I Caught a Fish Alive.
  • Make finger prints using paint or play dough.
  • Push buttons
  • Make finger puppets

Pincer grip

Pincer grip is the pressing together of the index finger and thumb. First developed around 12 months, it is used to pick up small objects. Think of that slow, deliberate effort to pick up finger food. Older children use the pincer grip in a host of everyday actions, from tying laces and putting hair slides in, to sticking down pieces of collage. And it is the forerunner of the tripod grip, which, with the addition of the middle finger, is how we grip a pencil. Encouraging early confidence and strength with their pincer grip, makes the complicated business of learning to write much easier for children.

Ideas for pincer grip practice:

  • Finger food is a great way to encourage pincer grip without them noticing. Small foods like raisins, grapes and rice cakes need pincer grips to pick them up.
  • Rolling balls of play dough between finger and thumb helps to develop greater control after the basic movement is accomplished.

Tripod grip develops over time and is often not perfected until school age

Tripod grip

The tripod grip uses the thumb and index finger along with the middle finger. It’s the most commonly used grip and is used for some of life’s most important tasks, from holding cutlery and drinking cups, to wiping surfaces and drawing. It’s also the grip that helps children maintain a straight-ish line when they start to write, as the middle finger guides the pencil across the page.

Helping your child to develop a good tripod grip will help them handle pencils and paintbrushes with greater ease, and develop general strength and fluidity of movement in their hands - all of which makes the transition to the classroom easier for everyone.

Some ideas for working on tripod grip:

  • Scissors: cutting out snow-flakes for Christmas or strips for making paper-chains will give the whole hand - but especially the middle fingers - an excellent tripod grip work-out
  • Leaf or coin rubbing: using fat crayons or chalks on their side requires the tripod grip
  • Squirty toys: soft squirty balls or toys in the bath will build tripod grip strength while having lots of fun
  • Remind your child to rest the pencil on the middle finger, rather than pressing it with the finger's tip. The middle finger is for support. The thumb and forefinger do all the work.

If your child is having trouble using just the middle and index fingers, remind them to press their ring and little fingers into the palm of their hand. It sometimes helps to press a small object, such as a rubber, between the outer two fingers and the palm to keep them tucked away.


I'm Alexis, father of four and founder of One Hundred Toys. I taught in London primary schools for thirteen years, specialising in the early years. Now I write about all things play here on the blog. Read more

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