Ask An Expert / Learning

What can I do for my 4-year-old son who still doesn’t hold his pencil correctly?

The best way to help a child develop a mature grasp is with fun activities

Kenneth Schuster, PsyD
Ken Schuster, PsyD

Clinical Neuropsychologist, Learning and Development Center; Director of Clinical Training

Child Mind Institute

What can I do for my 4-year-old son who still doesn't hold his pencil correctly or press down hard?

Learning how to write, and write properly, are developmental milestones just like crawling and saying a first word. Young children progress through stages, from looking at letters on the page of a book during infancy to producing those letters beginning in the preschool years. It is important to remember that, as with all developmental milestones, achievements are expected to occur within a broad range of ages, not at a specific time.

By age 4, a child may have progressed through several types of grasps while scribbling and drawing, from the “fist” or “power” grasp to a more mature way of holding a crayon or pencil, such as the dynamic tripod grasp. Kids usually develop this grasp between the ages of 4 and 6. The best way to help a child who hasn’t mastered this developmental hurdle is a relaxed and fun approach. Triangular crayons are a great way to promote a mature grasp — they are generally thicker than regular crayons and their triangular shape creates a surface on which to place each finger. (There are several companies that make their triangular crayons out of plastic, not wax, which makes them less likely to break, too!)

A less mature grip and light pressure can be a signs of muscle weakness in the wrist and fingers — the muscles we use to write. There are numerous fun activities for children that help to develop these muscles, such as lacing toys, building blocks, wind-up toys, cutting paper with safety scissors, and using a spray bottle to water plants. Play involving modeling clay or kneading dough for bread are also excellent ways to promote finger and wrist strength. When it is time to clean up, encourage your child to pick up toys using only his or her index (pointer) finger and thumb.

You can encourage your child to press down harder by showing him the different shades of the same color he can make with only one crayon or colored pencil. Demonstrate by shading lightly, shading with more pressure, and then shading with a lot of pressure. Ask your child to identify which shade goes with which amount of pressure and then have him try to create the different shades when coloring.

There are also fun ways of reducing the amount of pressure a child uses when drawing or writing. Instead of writing, as we usually do, on a hard surface, try using construction paper on a soft surface, such as a table cloth (one that you don’t mind getting a few marks on), the soft side of a mouse pad, or a thin sheet of flexible hobby/craft foam. On these soft surfaces, too much pressure will cause the paper to rip, and the goal is to NOT rip the paper!

Most importantly, have fun! Color, connect the dots, and play tic-tac-toe. Learning to write should not be a stressful experience for your child (or you!). If your child is resisting, not having fun — or if challenges persist despite the fun — a referral to an occupational therapist should be your next step.