The Pincer Grip
In the complicated web of Montessori materials, we see basic skills reinforced across multiple domains and through various activities. Especially in the essential coordination of fine and gross motor skills, Montessori materials embed meaningful opportunities for practice across the classroom, from carrying simple trays to balancing cumbersome buckets of water, from grasping large knobs to managing tiny tweezers. While we seek to support children's developing coordination of all their muscles as they become increasingly independent, we pay special attention to the development of the pincer grip, important to many skills but essential to writing.
What is the pincer grip? It's the coordination of your index finger and thumb, needed for grabbing a zipper pull or picking up a dime or holding a pencil. Because we don't want the challenge of holding a pencil to interfere with what the child wants to create with that pencil, we provide ample opportunities to build the muscles of the hand the child will need to manage a stylus, long before we invite them to formal lessons in writing. The development of these small muscles builds from the larger muscles of the hand to the more refined movements of the fingers. Very young child will naturally use a fist grip, grasping objects (or cheeks or handfuls of hair!) with all five fingers of the hand. You'll notice infants and young toddlers using this grip naturally, even when they may hold a paintbrush or crayon. From there, the child will typically employ a four-fingered grip, coordinating the thumb and the three largest fingers to pick up small bits of food, for example. While this is an important step, as it allows children to feed themselves, it's often a clumsier grip. (Try to pick up a nickel using four fingers... it's not pretty.)
In early childhood, children will start naturally demonstrating the pincer grip. In Montessori classrooms, we support this refinement with integrated opportunities to use the grip throughout the classroom. Transferring with tongs? You're building the muscles of the hand and finger on which the pincer grip relies. Removing the cylinders from the first block of Knobbed Cylinders? You're going to need your pincer grip to do that with ease. Look around the room: you'll see the grip in tools throughout the classroom, from the needles in our embroidery lessons to the pushpins children use to poke out the shapes of the continents. Children practice the larger muscles they'll need through activities with the full hand, like opening and closing containers, managing the Sound Cylinders and carrying the cubes of the Pink Tower. They practice the smaller muscles of the pincer grip by using tweezers, sorting buttons or nuts, or using counters. Before a teacher will introduce the early writing materials, the Metal Insets for example, she'll observe to determine how refined the child's pincer grip is. If the new lesson is learning how to manage a pencil, for example, we want to make sure that the child has the fundamental physical development to master that before we introduce it.
Throughout the classroom, you'll see times when a skill is explicitly introduced and other times when that same skill may be subtly reinforced through other activities. Indeed, the child may never use the words, "Pincer Grip," but the teacher will know to observe for its development as the child progresses through the sequence of materials. While the name of the skill is not essential, the ability to employ it in daily living and especially in communication through writing, is priceless.