What is a pincer grasp and why is it important?
The pincer grasp is the ability to pick up small objects using the thumb and index finger together. This develops by age one (and continues to mature) as babies move from a raking grasp with all fingers to picking up small finger foods such as cheerios with just these two fingers.
As children get older, having a mature pincer grasp helps with self help skills such as securing and undoing fastenings. For example, if a child is able to use their thumb and index finger together effectively, things like buttoning, zipping, and securing Velcro on their shoes will be much easier for them. Kids who have delayed grasping skills tend to use the ulnar side of their hand more (pinky and ring fingers) instead of the radial part (thumb and index fingers). You may see this when they are doing fine motor craft activities or when holding a sandwich. When the “ulnar” part of our hand is used, it makes doing things very difficult and makes fine motor activities challenging.
The pincer grasp also becomes very important in handwriting. It enables children to hold a pencil correctly and develop a mature tripod grasp around a pencil. Children with inefficient pencil grasps will have a harder time being able to keep up with the demands expected of them in school. They may begin to avoid writing tasks and their academics and confidence may suffer.
In addition, writing expectations for early elementary students have increased significantly over the last couple of decades. The handwriting expectations put on young children (especially those in kindergarten) are not always what kids are developmentally ready for.
Kids are sometimes quickly pushed into handwriting with high standards and expectations. It’s important to remember that it’s okay to slow down and spend time on building those foundation skills…to allow kids to engage in fun games and activities which naturally promote finger strengthening and work on their fine motor skills. If kids have the chance to practice their grasping skills and use those small muscles of the hand at an early age, they will have a more functional and mature grasp on writing utensils when it comes time to academics and handwriting tasks.
Here is what the development of a child’s pencil grasp looks like:
What can you do to help with your child’s grasp?
Luckily, there are many fun activities you can do with your child to work on pincer grasping and grasp development.
When your child is coloring, encourage them to use their fingers on the marker/ crayon as much as possible. A tripod grasp or modified tri-pod grasp is the most desirable grasp and our goal is to work towards this. You can help by discouraging the cylindrical grasp (aka “fisted grasp”) seen above and try to get your kiddo to use their fingers as much as possible.
Below are a list of some activities to help with those grasping skills and to work on mastering that pincer grasp:
- Use tongs, strawberry hullers, large tweezers, or connected chop sticks to transport small items such as beans, pom poms, marshmallows, cotton balls, etc. Transfer these items from one container to another or make your own cute little activity as seen below. Child places pom-poms on caterpillar segments using tongs.
- Put coins in a piggy bank. Use fingers to pick up each coin from the table. Try to discourage your child from sliding the coins off the table. (children with often try to do this because it’s easier to pick up that way.)
- Peel stickers and place onto paper. [How to adapt this activity? Chunky large foam stickers are easiest. Small, thin stickers are more difficult to peel.]
- Craft activities involving crumpling small pieces of tissue paper and gluing
- Use Q-tips as a utensil while gluing…dip the Q-tips into glue!
- Use eye droppers to paint with- use colored water on coffee filters to make beautiful art
- Make a “birthday cake.” Have your child roll out and flatten play dough, cut up straws (“candles”) and push them into it
- SQUISHING clay/ play dough/ modeling foam/ putty, etc. Roll your medium of choice into small balls for your child. Next, ask your child to flatten the small balls by using the pad of their thumb and index finger together to squish them.
- Clothespins! Clip/ unclip onto clothing, stuffed animals, paper plates, around containers, etc. Make sure they are using their FINGERS to squeeze the clothespin open. Encourage a pincer grasp (thumb and index finger together) or 3 pt. pinch (thumb with index and middle fingers together) instead. Another idea is to write capital letters or number of the alphabet on the clothespins and have them match the letters to their name written on paper.
- Use spray bottles for water play outside or to help water the plants and flowers
- Pop bubble wrap
- Play with pop beads
- Perler bead projects!
- Use puffy paint and get those little fingers squeezing!
- Hide small items in play dough or putty and have children find them and dig out using finger tips
- Sort buttons or M&Ms according to size, color, shape, etc. Use pincer grasp to pick up.
- Marshmallow stampers. Use marshmallows to dip into paint (or jell-o mixed with water if concerned that child may put in mouth) and stamp onto construction paper
- Tear cotton balls apart. It may look easy at first, but after about 10 or so it really is a work out for the fingers! This would be a good activity to do in the winter to make “snow” for an art project.
Most importantly, one of the simplest things you can do to help your child build their grasping skills is to give time for independence in self help skills and daily routines! We’re all guilty of rushing to do things for our children in our busy, hectic lives. We sometimes forget that grooming, meal times, and getting dressed are great opportunities to let kids take charge and practice strengthening those little hands and fingers! Next time, let your child try to peel their own clementine or banana. Things like putting on their own socks and shoes, squeezing toothpaste, opening up snack baggies, pouring drinks, cutting food, opening/ closing their own lunch boxes and food containers all help to work on their fine motor skills.
Written by: Christina, OTR/L & Owner of Sensory TheraPLAY Box, LLC (the monthly sensory toy box for children on the autism spectrum and/or sensory needs)
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