Fine Motor Activities to Encourage Good Pencil Grip

These play-based fine motor activities are provided for the Melissa & Doug blog by Cindy Utzinger,  pediatric Occupational Therapist.

M and D pencil pick up step 3

Holding a pencil correctly- why does something that looks so easy seem so hard to teach our kids?  Using a mature pencil grasp (one that involves just the thumb and index finger or thumb, index, and middle fingers on the pencil) is a hard skill for many kids to grasp (no pun intended!). About 50% of 3 years olds can use a mature pencil grip but you really want to see a mature grip begin to emerge by around 4 years old.

As an Occupational Therapist, this is something I work very hard on this with children in the clinic. I want to give you a free OT session today giving you tips on how you can work with your children at home on their pencil grip:

  1. In the clinic, I always start with fine motor activities before we ever pick up a pencil.  I like to use fun activities that engage the child and that require them to use their thumb and index finger (or a pincer grasp).  I also like the activities to require the child to use both hands working together in a cooperative manner.  This is important because writing not only involves the hand that is doing the writing, but it also requires the “helper hand” to hold the paper steady.

Some of my favorite activities for incorporating a pincer grasp and bilateral hand use are Melissa & Doug’s Wooden Stringing Beads, the Lacing Sneaker, Butterfly Peel and Press Sticker by Number, and Lace and Trace Shapes.  Each of these activities promotes the use of the thumb and index finger working separately from the rest of the fingers and requires the non-dominant hand to act as a “helper hand”.

M and D Beading

When I have a child who is still using their entire fist to hold the pencil, using activities that promote the use of just one finger in isolation is important.  A Finger Paint Set is great for this.  Encourage your children to paint with just one finger at a time.  For example, they can use their pointer finger to paint with red, their middle finger to paint with blue, their ring finger to paint with yellow, and their little finger to paint with green.  If this is too difficult, start by encouraging them to only paint with their pointer finger dipping it in water prior to switching to a different color.  Finger puppets are another great way to encourage the use of the pointer finger in isolation.

M and D Fingerpaint

I also like to use activities that encourage the use of and strengthening of all of the many tiny muscles in the hand.  Melissa and Doug’s Super Model Sculpting Compound is a great way to do just that.  Rolling it into balls, pressing it out flat, pinching it,  etc. encourage the use of all of those muscles in the hand that are important for developing fine motor coordination.

M and D molding compound

After doing these fine motor activities to get those little fingers warmed up and ready to go, it is time to pick up the pencil.  Let me give you a little tip on how to teach your child to pick up their pencil or crayon.  Let me warn you though, you may see the light bulb go on and have an “aha moment”.

  • Have your child place their pencil or crayon on the table with the point facing toward them.
  • Instruct them to use their thumb and index finger (their “pinching fingers”) to pinch the pencil where the paint meets the wood or pinch the crayon near the tip.
  • Next, have them use their other hand to grab the pencil or crayon near the opposite end and flip that end of the pencil or crayon back until it is resting in the meaty area between the base of the thumb and the base of their index finger.
  • Have them make a few strokes with their pencil or crayon and then drop it and do it all over again.  Repetition is the key so have your child practice this for about 5 minutes or as much as tolerated.

M and D pencil pick up step 1


That ends your free therapy session for today.  I hope you enjoyed it!  Pencil grip and the fine motor skills involved in holding a pencil correctly as such an important pre-cursor to writing that cannot be overlooked.

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Cindy Utzinger is a pediatric Occupational Therapist, handwriting tutor, and founder of Building Write Foundations LLC.  She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young children (a son and a daughter).  In her free time she can be found running through the streets of her neighborhood to get some exercise or enjoying time on the lake with family and friends.  Through her website ( she provides parents, teachers, and caregivers with information regarding the importance of building each and every child’s sensory foundation and provides ways to help build their sensory foundation and their foundation for learning.  Through her website she also blogs and tackles issues dealing with handwriting problems, ADD/ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and diagnoses on the autism spectrum.

You can follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter and her blog!



  1. Do you have any special suggestions for a “righty” mom to help her “lefty” son? Thanks!

    • melissaanddoug says:

      Hi Tarah. We asked our expert Cindy for her thoughts. Please find her response, here: The most important thing when helping a child who is left handed is paper set-up. Most left handed children struggle because the letters or words they are trying to copy are on the left side of the paper and, therefore, when writing with their left hand they are covering up what they are supposed to be copying; this leads to hooking of the wrist. Make sure that what your child is supposed to be copying is also on the right side of the paper so they can see it as they are writing. This is how I would set up a line words to copy so the word is on the left and right side: dog_____ dog______dog______dog.

      Here is a link to a blog that she wrote on her site where she goes into more specifics in paper set-up.

  2. SUE FLEMING says:

    Thank you for the correct pencil positing. My 8 year old grand daughter holds her pencil and crayons so differently…and her handwriting and coloring are messy…I have tried other techniques and none have worked. I will try yours this weekend and see if it will help her. Thank you again.


  1. […] your child’s fine motor skills so that they have both the strength and the dexterity to properly grip a pencil. But writing also relies on sensory awareness (noticing sights, sounds, smells, textures, and […]