Tag Archives: pencil grasp

Can HWT’s Flip Crayons Transform Pencil Grasp in Preschoolers?

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I gave a mom a few of Handwriting Without Tear’s flip crayons this week. She was amazed at what her son did with them. He picked them up, examined them and proceeded to figure out how best to hold them without a word from me. He automatically achieved the mature grasp that we had been talking about all spring. Bingo!

Will that happen with every child? Probably not, but flip crayons are a popular tool in my OT arsenal for a reason. They work more often than they fail. There is less effort from an adult, less redirection, which is often perceived as criticism by young children. Remember, children often hear “wait a second…” as “you did it wrong”. These small two-sided crayons are very visually appealing to young children, and become even more so when I introduce them as “kindergarten crayons” that I think a child might try. Every child wants to be seen as older and more skilled, even the anxious ones. I “sell” the use of these crayons as an advanced writing tool that we can use in therapy and at home.

Then I offer to show them how the older kids use them, and flip them from one color to the other while holding the crayon’s center between my thumb and index finger. This is actually an exercise and an evaluative tool for me. A child that doesn’t have the control and coordination to flip the crayon may not be able to achieve the stable tripod grasp needed to use a flip crayon.

The next step is demonstrating HWT’s wiggle stroke on paper. I use their preschool pages, but I created my own as well. Most of my clients need more practice than the 3-4 pages in the book.

Now it is time to trace the gray shapes and color in the shape pages in the workbook. Again, I created my own pages to expand and enrich. I could only do this because I took the HWT course (twice) and understand the principles behind the pages. If your teacher is riffing off of the workbook but her pages don’t have the same immediate success as the HWT workbook, that could be the reason. Knock-offs that aren’t true to the concept won’t work as well, or maybe even at all.

Order some flip crayons from HWT today at Handwriting Without Tears, and watch the magic happen!

Want A Stronger Pencil Grasp? Use a Tablet Stylus

The trick? They need to use a short stylus and play apps that require primarily drag-and-drop play. Stop them from only tapping that screen today, because tapping alone will not make much of a difference in strength and grading of force.

Why will drag-and-drop play work? The resistance of the stylus tip on the screen builds strength and control at the same time. They gain control as they get the immediate feedback from game play. Too much force? They get stuck and can’t move the styluses the target. Too little force? Again, the target doesn’t move. Could they revert to a fisted grasp and accomplish this? Sure, but that is exhausting, and you are within view of them anyway….right?

For this to work, young children need supervision, but not helicopter supervision. And they need to know that how they hold any utensil matters to you. My best approach to build grasp awareness is to appeal to their desire to be older. Tell your child that you have been watching them, and you believe they are ready to hold a stylus like an older kid. Oh, and you can explain to them how to hold the stylus the easy way. They just have to watch your example and play some games for practice. Yup, you ASK them to play on a tablet!

Best drag-and-drop games for young children? I like the apps from Duck Duck Moose, especially the Trucks and Park Math. Every app has some tapping, but you can select and “sell” the games that require drag-and-drop. There are apps that little girls can play to dress up princesses, mermaids, etc. Pick the ones where they have to drag the items over to the characters. Same with wheels on trucks, shapes into a box, etc. The Tiny Hands series of educational apps have a lot of drag-and-drop play.

Finally, mazes are wonderful, and so are dot-to-dots that require drag-and-drop play.

Have a really young child, or a child who struggles to keep their fingers in a mature grasp pattern without any force? Then apps that require just a tap are fine. I set the angle of my tablet at various heights (my case allows this) to prompt more wrist extension (where the back of the hand is angled a bit toward the shoulder, not down to the floor). When a child’s wrist is slightly extended, the mechanics of the hand encourage a fingertip grasp without an adult prompting them.

Try drag-and drop play with a stylus on your tablet today, and see if your child’s grasp strength starts improving right away!

Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility?

As a pediatric OT, I am often asked to assess and teach proper pencil grasp.  Once you start looking, you see a lot of interesting patterns out there.  When a child clearly has low muscle tone and/or hypermobile joints, the question of what to do about an atypical pencil grasp used to puzzle me.  I could spend weeks, or even months, teaching positioning and developing hand strength in a child, only to find that they simply couldn’t alter their grasp while writing.

Now I triage grasp issues by determining if it is a problem for the child now or in the future.  An atypical pencil grasp can be an acceptable functional compensation or it can be a contributor to later joint damage.  What’s the difference?  You have to know a bit about hand anatomy and function, how to adapt activities, and how to assess the ergonomics of writing.

Children aren’t aware of most of the problems that low tone and/or hypermobility create when they hold a pencil.  They just want to create. The effects of their unique physiology often results in grasp patterns that cause parents pain just to observe; fingers twisted around the shaft of the pencil, thumb joints bent backward, etc.  The kids aren’t usually complaining; their lack of sensory receptor firing at the joints and muscles gives them no clues to the strain they are inducing.  None.  Occasionally children will complain of muscular fatigue or pain after writing a few paragraphs or completing an art project.  For the most part, they are unconcerned and unaware of what is really going on.  For a more detailed explanation, please check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children,

Do these funny grasp patterns reduce legibility?  Only sometimes.  There are atypical grasp patterns that are good choices for children with hypermobility.  One is to place the shaft of the pencil directly between the index and third finger, and allow the thumb to support the side of the pencil.  The knuckle joints of those fingers provide more stability than the standard tripod grasp.  I allow preschoolers who need to keep more than 3 fingers on the shaft of the pencil to do so, and wait to see what happens as they develop more overall hand control.  Forcing a tripod grip isn’t always in their best interest now or for the future.

What can be done?  My favorite method to help children with low tone or hypermobility is to look at the problem with both a wide-angle lens and with targeted analysis.  I think about changing overall posture, altering any and all equipment, and examine the mechanics of movement.

These kids often need better proximal support, meaning that changing their chairs and writing/drawing surfaces could result in less strain in their hands and wrists.  To understand one way your whole body is involved in writing, take a look at Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand” Using writing tools that reduce joint force by enlarging the shaft diameter or changing out lead for gel pens or markers is another strategy.  Take a look at Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work for more good ideas that actually make a difference.  I will teach kids how to pace themselves to reduce force and fatigue throughout their bodies.  A little awareness can be a big help.  Finally, I may suggest a pencil grip, but I assess this carefully in order to avoid forcing a typical grasp on a child that can’t manage it due to instability or profound weakness.  I might start with the Grotto Grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write., in the hope that we can strengthen and train a stable grip, but I will move on quickly if it doesn’t work within a month or causes more difficulty in writing.

Atypical pencil grasp can be a problem, but it can also be a solution to a child who is struggling to write and draw in school.  If you have concerns, ask your OT to evaluate and explore the issue this week!

Which Crayons Promote Mature Writing Grasp?

It is back-to-school time here in the U.S.  Stores are pushing clothes, backpacks, shoes and school supplies.  Time for teachers to set up their classrooms and get excited about a new school year.  When I see the amazing variety of crayons on display at Target or Walmart, it reminds me to speak to the families I serve about selecting great writing and pre-writing tools.

First of all, let’s get the “giant crayons for smaller hands” thing out of the way.  My crayon gauge starts with the standard Crayola crayon, and goes up or down from there.  Mostly up, since I have rarely seen crayons that are narrower.  Pencils?  Yes, but not crayons.  Most children that cannot hold a crayon with a tripod or quadruped grasp (three or four fingers, respectively) will use a hook or fisted grasp to hold a standard Crayola crayon.  Why?  Often because they don’t yet have the strength and control to do so, sometimes because they haven’t been taught to hold crayons this way.  This is going to create problems for controlling that crayon and those pencils.  Let’s not even mention the bad habits that could continue for years.

Crayon and pencil grasp is not something that shows up naturally, like walking.  We are wired for walking, but prehension is a skill that developed later in humans.  Children that do not teach themselves by copying siblings and adults need to be taught.  If you present it as a grown-up skill and reward rather than criticize, many children need no more instruction.  Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) does an amazingly simple job of teaching mature pencil grip. Handwriting Without Tears

Kids older than 3 who cannot hold a standard crayon in the mature pattern can benefit from a large crayon that has been snapped in half.  Why break a perfectly good crayon?  To reduce the shaft length and prompt the child to use their fingertips, not their fist to hold a crayon.  Will those super-sized crayons or the triangle/ball-shaped crayons help?  Sorry, but no.  They appear to have been designed to give infants who use a cylindrical grasp (totally normal) the ability to scrape a crayon across a page.  It looks so cute to have your 9 month- old actually coloring!  If your older child has serious motor issues such as significant cerebral palsy, they might work.  If your child simply struggles to use a mature grasp, you could be setting them back by allowing them to use a less mature grasp to scribble.

Handwriting Without Tears sells their Flip Crayons.  These are very short and the diameter of a standard Crayola crayon.  Therefore they are shorter and narrower than a large crayon that you broke in half.  They will require more fingertip control because there is less space for  a child to use much more than a few fingertips.  I have had parents remark on how small they are for themselves, and then realize that their pencil grasp is actually not a standard grip either!  Not to worry, unless they struggle with handwriting as much as their child does!  Children who are adept at flip crayon use will progress quickly to the use of short golf pencils, which HWT sells with erasers, or your local office supply store sells without erasers.

Flip crayons have one color on one end, another color at the other end.  Children learn to “flip” them over in their hand to change colors.  Great coordination skill, and fun too!! Four year-olds are usually ready to use these, and if not, then they need to work a bit more on fingertip strength and control.  What if your child just palms them, even after they have been taught how to hold them?  Give them a few supervised turns, with you as the model.  If they are still struggling, they are not ready yet and should try the “broken crayon” strategy.  Don’t forget to periodically try out the Flip Crayons, since you want to raise their game rather than keep them at a pre-pencil stage if they are ready to move on.

What can you do to help them?  All the great activities that develop hand control.  Scissors  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler, dough, tape  Melissa And Doug Tape Activity Book Is Reusable Fun, and especially spoon and fork use with a grown-up grasp  Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child.  Check on them after a month of finger control “boot camp” at home, and see what has happened to their pencil grasp!

 

Summer Fun Pre-Writing Activities

Here in the U.S., summer is fully underway.   Pools, camps, and vacations!  Handwriting isn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Except mine.  Without practice, kids with learning differences, motor control issues, and visual-perceptual concerns can lose a lot of the skills that they worked so hard on all year long in therapy.

Here is a fun activity, not a boring worksheet, to keep or build pre-writing skills for preschoolers and kindergarteners.  Remember, into each summer some rain will fall, and there will be overcast days, or times when kids have to wait for a meal in a restaurant  while on vacation.  This activity can be a fun way to pass the time!

Ice Cream Cones

I picked this theme because ice cream is a food that most kids love, and the strokes/shapes needed have pre-writing value.  Your child will have no idea that she is building the visual-perceptual and finger control needed for handwriting instruction!

For the youngest pre-writers:  Draw an ice cream cone as below, at least 4-5 inches tall, and have your child aim for the “scoop” to wiggle their crayon, making sprinkles. I lightly colored in the scoop and drew lines on the waffle cone.  Younger children don’t always recognize a figure in a line drawing as easily as a completed one.  Their scribbles will be large, but demonstrate that our scribbles stay inside the scoop and are reversing vertical or horizontal lines, or a circular scribble.  The important thing is that they are attempting to stay inside the scoop and they are reversing the direction of their stroke.

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For children that are beginning to trace letters:

  1. Write the letter “V” in gray, about 3-4 inches tall.  Why gray?  So that your child can use a bolder color to trace over your lines.
  2. Have them trace your letter in a brighter color, then use your gray crayon to make a line across the “V” from left-to-right (for righties.  lefties will be more comfortable tracing right-to-left).
  3. Let them trace that line as well.
  4. Draw an arch, starting at the beginning of your “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.
  5. Let them trace that line.
  6. Demonstrate how to keep your crayon tip barely moving as you “wiggle” to create a tiny sprinkle.  Ask your child to copy you.

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For kids that are writing their own letters with demonstration:

  1. Write the letter “V”on your paper, placed directly above theirs.  Ask them to copy you.
  2. Make a line across the “V” from left-to-right( for righties; lefties cross from right-to-left).  Ask them to copy you.
  3.  Make an arch to form the scoop, starting from the beginning of the “V”, curving upward and ending at the end of the “V”.  Ask them to copy you.
  4. Demonstrate how to wiggle your crayon tip slightly to create sprinkles, and even add little lines for drips of ice cream falling off the scoop.

 

BONUS ROUNDS:  Use sturdy paper and have your child cut out his ice cream scoops.  Have him ask everyone what kind of ice cream flavor and how many scoops they would like him to make for them.  Grab the toy cash register, and use the cones to play ” ice cream shop”. 

10 Easy Ways to Prepare Preschoolers to Write

Standardized testing has pushed the demand for handwriting down, down, down into preschool.  The great majority of preschool children by the end of the 4’s will not have the physical control of a pencil to write lowercase letters correctly, but some teachers tell me that their administrations require them to teach kids to write their names in title case (first letter in uppercase, remaining letters are lowercase) in preschool, in preparation for kindergarten!

Children that cannot write lowercase letters correctly because they cannot perform the reversals and back-tracing that this case requires will almost always figure out a way to “cheat”.  Not a criticism of children at all; these kids want to please.  So the”p” becomes a straight line placed next to a circle.  An “m” becomes two humps.  If not corrected quickly and effectively, I will be getting a call in a year or two for private tutoring.  I spend a lot of time doing home-based private work for families that paid for an expensive preschool, and it resulted in a child that created their own way to write lowercase letters.  Those adapted letters look cute when you are 4, even “advanced” to the uneducated eye, but they are just sloppy writing when you are 8. OOPS!

I cannot change the administrators’ attitudes about curriculum, but I can offer my very best suggestions to teachers of the 3’s and early 4’s who want to do right by these kids.  If you are being asked to teach lowercase letters this early, then your whole approach to writing needs to be well thought-out and comprehensive.  It’s like losing 50 pounds before a wedding: everything you do should contribute to your goal!  Yes, I said teachers of the 3’s.  Again, if a child is going to learn lowercase letters correctly at 4, that child needs skill development in the 3’s to get there.

This is a long post, and I am hoping that it will become an e-book so that teachers around the world will get solid advice that helps them.  Just telling you to buy a workbook or tiny crayons is not enough, not if you are being asked to bloom these little flowers early.

This does not mean that all you do is write.  If you have the HWT preschool teacher’s manual in front of you, you have a year’s worth of fun and multi-sensory activities to add to your lesson plans that incorporates language, social skills, pre-math awareness, and more.  The best pre-writing activities sometimes have no actual writing involved.  Small group play with wood pieces can be so much fun that kids don’t want to put them away!

  1. If you are going to expect pencil grasp this early, you must provide early and substantial opportunities for small object manipulation to build refined motor and sensory skills.  What does that mean?  As soon as they are not likely to swallow little items (use food pieces if you are not certain about this), have kids picking up tiny items and sorting/gathering/assembling them creatively. Expand this beyond just fingertips by using tweezers, chopsticks and all manner of tools.Take a look at Teaching Pencil Grasp Can Start with Edison Chopsticks
  2. Teach pencil grasp, don’t just expect it or wait for it.   HWT does this well, giving teachers easy group instructions.  Don’t let a really awkward grasp go by.  You are doing a disservice to the child.  If your teaching tricks don’t work, ask an OT for a screening.  You might need help in more areas than just grasp.
  3. Require a mature grasp by limiting the use of a fisted grasp with those giant dot markers, giant chalk, etc.  This is the time to care about materials.  Use small crayon pieces that are still a large enough diameter to support a fingertip grasp.  Find short brushes for painting, fun lacing activities that require a fine tip grasp, use q-tips for spreading glue, and more.
  4. Teach and practice the use of a mature spoon grasp as early as 3.5 years.  See my blog post Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? on the best spoon style and activities to build this grasp Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write.  Why?  Because you want every opportunity to build hand control.  Don’t serve spoon-able snacks in preschool?  Use real toddler spoons for tactile play and scooping manipulative.  Those plastic disposable spoons don’t encourage the stable grasp and provide a non-slip surface the way good toddler spoons can. This is what I do in therapy, since I can’t always have a snack session in OT.    Use them consistently and wash them at the end of the day.  Better yet, have your kids do it.  Manipulating soap, water and towels are great, and they build a sense of personal responsibility to maintain the classroom.  A win-win, in my opinion.  The spoons can go right in the kitchen area so that dolls get fed with them and pretend meals are served with them.  The fun never ends.
  5. Use the prepositions and stroke descriptions that are needed to follow letter formation instructions when you speak to children.  Explain what you are doing as you write, and what each stroke is called.  Young children have no experience with the language of writing.  None.  It would be like not knowing the vocabulary of cooking.  Knowing the difference between “whisk” and “fold”  in baking is important if you are going to be a good baker.  Teachers, this is the same thing.  Handwriting Without Tears has the simplest instructions, so that is one good reason to adopt this program for teaching young children.  Games with wood pieces and roll-a dough incorporate the language of directionality and naming of stroke shapes in group instruction.
  6. Guess what builds comprehension of spatial prepositions like “up”, “across”, “down”, etc?  Movement, and lots of it,enjoyed by children and described by an adult.  It is the difference between saying to a 3 year-old: “Wow, big jump!” and “Wow! You jumped down to the ground and then popped right back up so-o-o fast!”.  Research tells us that children from families with higher levels of education use more words and more descriptive words when they communicate with young children.  By the time these children have entered preschool, they have had this subtle education in prepositions that give them an advantage when handwriting and reading are taught.  Let’s give that advantage to all children.
  7. Handwriting is a bilateral skill.  Ask anyone who has had their wrist and hand in a cast how difficult it is to steady the paper with one hand!  If schools are going to teach writing as early as possible, it means that more targeted bilateral (two-handed) play activities in your classroom have to be offered.  Montessori teachers do this really well.  Carrying those trays, sorting and dumping containers, stringing and snipping with scissors all develop coordination with both hands working around a center, one hand stabilizing and supporting, the other performing the target action. You can get scissors into the hands of young children if you choose the kind that don’t injure them.  Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler
  8. Body awareness and postural control are essential.  HWT uses Mat Man for body awareness and drawing, but there are other fun things too.  Toys that require balance are nice, but so is standing on one leg, hopping on one leg, walking on a masking-tape balance beam.  Of course, being a ROBOT on one leg is more fun, and so is being a DANCER on one foot.  Why wait for the day your kids go to “movement class”?  The free play time in the gym could be so much more than chasing each other or fighting over the pedal cars.  Small groups doing fun movement is good for teachers too.  We all need to move.
  9. How to sit at the table used to be taught at home with mealtime manners and such.  Even the kids in the 1% ( some of whom who live in the fanciest part of my own town!) sometimes haven’t been taught to sit at the table by 3.  It is time to teach it at school.  Teaching kids that sitting on their behinds with their feet flat is the way to get their bodies steady for writing would help.  Are your chairs too large for the 3’s to do this?  Hunt the school for a chair that fits the child.  Again, the Montessori people are really good at realizing that you can’t sit a 3 year old on a chair built for a 5 year-old and get good posture.  They have well-designed furniture in their classrooms, and it isn’t for decoration.  It is for function. Go online and see if you can get some for your class.  Tell the administration that it is an investment.  It is.
  10. Use coloring activities that build strength and control.  The single most important thing you can do to make coloring a pre-writing skill with young children?  Color together!  Even the kids who ignore you when you tell them to copy your actions will watch what you do.  My favorite move is to narrate my work, even make some mistakes and say out loud what I did wrong.  I get to model frustration tolerance but I also make an emotional connection and then I do a good job and show pride in my work.  We have to be showing genuine enthusiasm for writing and coloring if we want to transmit that value.  Select coloring pictures with simple backgrounds or none at all.  Young children simply cannot see the difference between the focal design and the background.  It is like those weird paintings that you have to look at twice to see the hidden items embedded inside.  Kids just won’t color on something like that.  They just scribble across the page.  Choose themes that are meaningful.  My most popular coloring page?  Darth Vader.  Very few little boys don’t want him to look good, and by good I mean menacing. And by menacing I mean all black except for the light saber.  OK with me!

 

Why Low Muscle Tone Affects Pencil Grasp

 

Low muscle tone can cause a child to struggle with holding crayons and pencils.  Those little fingers wrap around them, fold over them and sometimes ball up into a fist to hold a pencil.  How a child holds a pencil does not automatically mean that his handwriting will be illegible, but it almost always makes learning to write more challenging.  A grasping pattern that cannot easily control the movement and force of a stroke will make beginning writers work harder.  Here are some reasons why this happens, and a few ideas to help kids develop a stable grasp:

Low tone reduces the sensory feedback from grasping and writing.  Without enough information from the muscle and joint receptors in the arm and hand, a child may use the wrong amount of force (either too little ,or more likely, too much) when writing.  Unless a child is looking at his pencil, he may not be able to write.  As adults, we do not realize the amount of time we look away or cannot see what we have written until our fingers move out of the way at the end of a letter or a word.  That can be too late.  Children with low tone are making writing errors and don’t know about it until they can see them.  If they don’t look, then they start the next word without correcting an error.

Low muscle tone will result in quicker fatigue and the poor legibility that comes with forcing other muscles to compensate.  Children who substitute extra muscles to get control of a pencil and achieve the typical pattern of movement, or have squeezed too hard on their crayon, will honestly tell you that their hands are tired.  This will cause them to adapt their grip into an even more awkward pattern.  If they have generalized low tone and aren’t sitting with support, then their shoulders and back are probably tired too.  They  might just refuse to continue to do their writing at all.

What can be done?

  • Good positioning reduces some fatigue and improves control.  When body parts are well-supported and aligned, fatigue will be delayed.  Make sure that a child has a chair that gives him a writing surface that is supportive.  The best idea that got lost in handwriting?  The slanted desk.  Why was it so helpful?  In days gone by, writing was a valued art, and the Palmer Method style was the standard.  This was a demanding style, and the angled desk supported a writer’s shoulder, wrist and hand so that control was achieved without as much fatigue.  Now we have to improvise with writing easels.  My favorite hack?  Turning a large 3-ring binder on it’s side and affixing the paper in a horizontal or “landscape” orientation.
  • Don’t forget the benefits of having feet on the floor.  As I write this post, I have one foot on the base of my office chair, bar room style.  I am sitting comfortably so that I can keyboard for a while.  A child with his feet wrapped around the legs of a chair is a big billboard announcing “I need more support for sitting, please!”
  • Consider using the pencil grip that actually strengthens finger muscles (see my post in August 2015), gradually increasing the amount of time a child can write with this grip.  Why gradually?  Using weak muscles in a new way will create rapid fatigue at first.
  • Work on holding utensils for meals.  My post Teach Spoon Grip By Making It Fun And Sharing a Laugh With Your Child is great for the younger toddler, but if you have a child that is over 3 and is able to use their fingertips to neatly pick up cereal and can scribble with more than a fist, then you need Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp? to find a good spoon to teach a mature grasp (the kind where his thumb is on top of the handle and fingers are curled under).  Why should you care about self-feeding when this is a post about pencil grip?  Because children eat longer and more regularly than they scribble, and every scoop is giving them direct feedback about their progress.
  • Make sure that the pencil or crayon suits a child’s grasp.  I like triangle crayons for their extra sensory feedback from flat sides for finger placement.  Some kids need short crayons but thicker diameters, so snap thick crayons in half.  I have found automatic pencils with thick lead for older kids who snap the tips off of the #2 pencils.