7 steps to improving your child’s grasp pattern
Have you ever wondered what the “ideal” grasp pattern is? Do you wonder if your child is on the right track to a “functional pencil grasp”? Or are you still unsure what a “mature grasp pattern” even is?
Those are a lot of the buzzwords OTs use when discussing how a child holds a pencil. When you look at your child’s grasp pattern, are you confident they are doing it the right way? Or do you stress that they will never hold it correctly?
Let me reassure you, there’s no single way to hold a pencil but it is important that we are offering enough opportunities to be sure their grasp pattern is at least FUNCTIONAL–legible and free of pain and fatigue, and can maintain an appropriate speed.
Foundational Components for a Functional Grasp
Step 1 – Get dirty
Allow them to do all the rough/tumble, nitty/gritty, strength-building activities from day one. This means crawling (lots of crawling!), digging for worms, playing tug of war, climbing trees, squishing playdoh, swinging from the monkey bars, carrying buckets of sand, scooping mud, pulling a wagon full of rocks, etc. These are things that most children are drawn to naturally so DO NOT DISCOURAGE IT! Yeah, I understand maybe at certain times it wouldn’t be ideal to get messy but these are all amazing and natural opportunities for their little hands to develop the underlying strength, coordination, and tactile discrimination that holding a pencil requires.
Step 2 – Strengthen the core
Aside from targeting hand skills, it’s very important to strengthen core muscles. The importance of those should never be overlooked as the common phrase “proximal stability leads to distal mobility” is popular among occupational therapists. In general terms, one needs a solid center or foundation in order to perform skilled, precision tasks of the hand, such as writing.
Step 3 – Play
Sneak in games and activities that will supplement all the muscles they will gain from Step 1. These are things such as peeling stickers, coloring, playing games with small pawns, using tongs, tearing paper, cutting shapes, etc. This is preschool and can often just look like play or arts & crafts, but it’s really important stuff!
Step 4 – Identify a hand dominance
If your child is highly engaged in the above activities regularly, their dominance should start to revealing itself as early as 2 years old. If you aren’t seeing it regularly and “want to test for it”, place desired items such as a single crayon or a spoon they need to eat their applesauce directly at midline (center of their body). I recommend doing this as many times per day as you can over a week’s time and keep a tally. If you child is nearing 4 or 5 (about to enter a class that will have higher expectations to complete written work) begin encouraging the hand they favor at least 65-70% of the time and actively discourage them from the less preferred one.
It is okay if you notice for a specific task like swinging a bat, the child is opposite their typical dominance but you don’t want your child to be switching during the same task such as coloring. That may be an indication of fatigue, and therefore activities should be extended a little longer during each opportunity to improve strength and endurance on the dominant side.
Step 5 – Little hands should use little utensils
The best crayons for little, developing hands are small, broken crayons. When they are new to coloring and lack experience with crayons, they often think they need to put all their fingers on it to hold it. Wrong! So instead of constantly verbally correcting them to hold it a certain way, only offer them a small piece that will naturally find its way into just a few fingers. Ideally, their ring and pinky fingers will fold into their palm and strengthening of thumb, index, and middle fingers will occur as they to use the crayon in various directions. If your child needs assistance tucking the ring and pinky– use a small object as a tactile cue to facilitate it.
I often recommend giving Kindergarteners golf pencils for this same reason…plus they always stick them in undesired places (nose, mouth, unknown sticky substance, etc.) so it’s less waste when it’s time to toss them. 😉
Step 6 – Stabilize the forearm
When the forearm rests on a surface like a table or desk, it naturally facilitates wrist extension and positions the fingers for optimal movement. One of my favorite tricks to work on this is to complete a coloring page or dot to dot on a vertical surface. Encourage the child to rest their forearm on the wall and only move the pencil/crayon with their fingers. Slant boards or 3” binders work too!
Step 7 – Encourage coloring in various directions
While adhering to steps 1-6 (especially a stabilized forearm), make sure the child can color in all directions; vertical strokes, horizontal strokes, and circular strokes without lifting their arm or turning the paper. If they’re in need of a greater challenge have them draw mini hearts, flowers, and stars.
Follow these steps (OVER AND OVER) and in time your child will develop a mature grasp pattern.
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