Learning to Write: Preschoolers and Proper Pencil Grip

When it comes to early childhood education, I am firmly in Charlotte Mason’s corner. (Along with John Holt, the Moores, and the Waldorf folks, for that matter.) There’s no need to rush into early academics; in fact, I think it’s a downright bad idea. Childhood is being shortened and children are being pushed into scholarly performance at ages ever more tender: six years old, five, four, even three. A Newsweek cover article asked recently, "Are kids getting pushed too fast, too soon?" The answer for many children in this country is emphatically yes. They’re being pushed into Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic when they ought to be playing Red Rover. A young child’s "curriculum" should be mud, paint, acorns, and dough.

I believe this with all my heart, and yet here I am with my third child catapulting into reading at preschool age. I didn’t teach Beanie to read. She, like her sisters, is growing up in a print-obsessed house. (Today a mover came to give me an estimate; he said he’d never seen anyone with so many books. Gulp. "But then," he added, looking around, "you don’t have much besides books, do you?") And like her sisters, Bean has cracked the code pretty much by herself.

We read some Bob Books together over the past year, because she wanted to—and ONLY when she wanted to. She cuddled up for hundreds of read-alouds with me, Scott, or one of her big sisters. She pored over the pages of Tintin and Scooby Doo. (Re the latter: there are few joys greater than reading a comic book your own daddy wrote.) Somewhere along the way, she put the sounds together and now she is reading, really reading. Yesterday she announced that she had read Green Eggs and Ham all by herself except for one word (could), which Rose helped her with.

I have been sitting back, not pushing, not even coaxing. When she asks me to listen to her read, I do, with delight, and I praise her triumphs lavishly. When she asks me to read to her, I say yes as often as I possibly can. But I don’t require her to practice reading; I don’t tell her to read. I believe this is very important. She is five years old. She has the rest of her life for books. At her age, life ought to be more about living stories than reading them.

Feeling as strongly as I do about the importance of delaying formal lessons until age six at the absolute earliest,* I’ve been in a bit of a quandary this past year about one aspect of Beanie’s development. She loves to draw and color, and during the past six or eight months she has been doing a fair amount of writing, too: captions for her pictures, notes to Daddy, lists of names, that sort of thing. And she has always done all this writing and drawing with the crayon or pencil gripped in her fist.

I have shown her a proper pencil grip, but I haven’t forced her to use it. She is comfortable with the fist grip and in fact gets panicky if you suggest she forego it for the finger grip—"I might ruin my picture!" she’ll say with horror. I have chosen not to worry about this, not to push, biding my time. First she was only three, then only four, now only five. But of course I cannot deny there’s been a nagging voice in my head urging me to correct her grip before the wrong way becomes a habit so firmly fixed it can only be broken with much distress.

On a friend’s advice I broke a box of crayons into small pieces, because if the writing instrument is small enough, you CAN’T grip it with your fist—only with your fingers. But nobody likes to use broken crayons, including Beanie. I tried small pieces of chalk, too, but then there was chalk dust everywhere and Wonderboy was writing on the walls and I think I got tired of chalk pretty quickly.

Recently I decided that I’d wait until our California move was behind us and we were nicely settled into our new home, and then I’d sit Beanie down and work with her on correcting her pencil grip. And still I was arguing with myself, because I knew that forcing her to hold the crayon "my" way would frustrate her, and did I mention she’s only five? And did I mention I don’t believe a five-year-old should be forced to endure penmanship lessons?

Turns out I needn’t have worried. A simple solution was sitting on my shelf all the time.

When did I buy the Handwriting Without Tears Stamp and See Screen? I don’t even remember. I think it’s been on the shelf quite a long time. I remember it seeing a lot of use in the first weeks after we got it, and then I probably cleaned it up (where "cleaned" means "scooped it up with eight hundred pieces of partially used paper and assorted coloring books and dumped it on an upstairs shelf where I wouldn’t have to deal with the mess") and forgot about it.

One of the kids found it yesterday. Basically, it’s a small Magna-Doodle. If you have the Handwriting  Without Tears wooden letter blocks, you can press them on the screen to make the letters show up. We do have those blocks, somewhere. I don’t know where. I think the whole "stamp the letter shapes" thing is probably interesting to a kid once or twice, and then it gets old. BUT. The Stamp & See Screen has a small "pen" attached by a string. VERY small—the size of a broken crayon or piece of chalk. It serves the same purpose as the Crayola fragment: you can only write with it if you hold it with your fingers in a proper pencil grip.

And hello, it’s a Magna-Doodle (-type thing)! Which equals fun. (And also: sibling squabbles.) Beanie’s in heaven because I told everyone it belongs to HER. Ah, the bliss of ownership. She happily drew faces and wrote letters all day with the loveliest pencil grip you ever saw. Which is not to say that she won’t revert right back to her fist grip when she picks up a crayon tomorrow. But now she knows that she CAN write and draw nicely with the finger grip, and I can relax about the whole thing.

I thought I’d pass on the tip in case anyone else out there is stressing over a little fist grip. But I do want to clarify that I’m not recommending you sit your little one down with the whole HWT pre-K package and require handwriting practice. I know several moms who have successfully used the HWT program with older children, and if younger kids want to play with the letter blocks as toys, great. But let it be a "may" and not a "must"—fun instead of fuss.

*About the "no lessons until age six or seven" thing: with Jane, my oldest, that is not at all the approach I took. I was eager to dive into all sorts of learning & exploration with her, and we were doing loads of rabbit-trailing when she was four and five years old. It was all very delight-directed and I always backed off the instant I saw her interest waning, but still. As she has grown, with other little ones coming up behind her—and remember she’s only eleven now, still quite young—I have gained more understanding of what Charlotte Mason was advocating for in Home Education, the book in which she lays out a vision for "educating" the child under seven—a vision rich in nature study and wholesome play, but containing no academic studies of any kind.

UPDATE on Beanie’s pencil grip here.

9 thoughts on “Learning to Write: Preschoolers and Proper Pencil Grip”

  1. A trick that worked with my 11yo (who used her fist as well) was to crumple up a piece of paper and have her hold that in her hand while she wrote/ coloured, etc. She could still use her ‘perfect’ crayons and pencils (Asperger’s, things had to be perfect), but she couldn’t use her whole hand to hold them, only her fingers. There were no formal penmanship lessons involved, so no stress for her.
    I used the same idea with my son when he was 6ish to fix his ‘death grip’ that tired him out and made a mess of his drawings.

  2. I really appreciate what you said about delaying “academics” with the littles. I find myself relaxing more and more with my dd and the more I relax, the more she learns and grows naturally.
    As for pencil grip, I am sure you have thought of this, but perhaps some Montessori-type activities such as using a tweezer to transfer beads or beans, or hanging baby clothes with clothspins might strengthen and encourage her pincher grip in a fun way.

  3. Don’t tell anyone, but those teeny tiny pencils at IKEA are very nice for new writers (and up here in Canada, the Lee Valley woodworking/gardening stores have similar ones, which makes them very nice for tool-obsessed new writers). I’m always finding after a trip that the kids have, erm, stocked their pockets…

  4. Yes! I was so frustrated while working as an OT in the public schools. Kindergarten teachers were wanting evaluations for kids who were not even 5 yet! I often suggested “toys” (I guess I was a budding Charlotte Masonite before I even knew who she was)! A good way to improve grasp is by putting the child’s work on a vertical surface, such as an easel or taping it to the wall. Murals are great (on paper, not your wall, LOL!). Also, games that exercise the small muscles of the hand help to improve grasp: “Don’t spill the beans” “Operation” (or Dino Excavation if you have Dino obsessed kids, like I do). Using tweezers or ice tongs is also good. Another suggestion, my personal favorite: rubber stamping. I have lots of other suggestions, and would be happy to share them at another time, because this post is already too long!

  5. I have a OT question about your relaxed approach. I have been relying on this for years and every one has looked at me like I have three heads. I got into quite the discussion after Mass on day when two moms were playing the compitition game of what they were going to home school their soon to be 3 year olds. I chimed in talking about waiting until the child is ready and being relaxed…you should have seen the look of horror on their face!!! How do you handle the “neglectful” response that people seem to give me all the time. I can’t even tell people that I don’t have a math program for me 6 year old! Gasp!!

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I appreciate the lack of academics before a certain age, but I was feeling a sense of nagging about that tight little grip my son was adapting, and had no idea how to gently nudge him in the right direction without “forcing” him. After all, he’s only 3, my husband would say. But that voice…seems you had it, too. Thanks for the tip, and the timing is just perfect for me!

  7. My three year old does the same thing. I’m a former early childhood special education teacher and I have to sit on my hands to keep from correcting her. She loves to draw and draws quite well and even is starting to draw shapes and show interest in writing her name (without pressure).
    I threw some cotton balls on the table the other day while she was doing her “art” and tucked one in my writing hand, held with my pinky, ring finger, and middle finger and then continued drawing away.
    She looked intrigued and said, “Let me try that!” It worked for a while, but her grasp is still awkward.
    But then again, she’s three.
    What worries me is that while she was holding the cotton ball, she complained of her fingers hurting. I’m afraid that if I let it go, she won’t develop the strength she needs to hold a pencil, and like you said, distress will follow.
    But again, she’s three.
    Tweezers picking up cotton balls, ice tongs and blocks, and clothes pins around a coffee can are all games that I’ve used with the under 5 set to improve fine motor strength.
    I’m intrigued by this unschooling thing. As a public school teacher who got her students when the were 2.5, I’m used to structure and routine. Granted, my students played their entire time in my classroom, but there were still lesson plans and curriculum. Now that I’m home with my daughters, I’ve done some research on home schooling and realized I had unschooling all wrong. I’d love to read more.

  8. YAHOOOOOOOOO! I whole heartedly agree with pushing too much on children too early….and don’t stop at six! Our fifth grade math program introduces graphing negative slope! Huh! I remember doing that with my Sophmore year math tutor! And struggling! Please! I asked our math coach about this and he said, “we are preparing children for the future, and we don’t know what that will require.” Um, my teachers didn’t know what the future would be like either, but they had time for play and didn’t try to teach negative slope to me at 10 years! Anyway, great post! Also, I grew up on the Ingalls girls so I have to read your books!

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