What do monkey bars and a pencil grip have in common?


It would seem that trying to correct pencil grip is becoming a real issue for teachers and definitely needs some looking into.  

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that we need to increase our focus on fine motor ability. Before this can happen, however, children need to have strong core and upper body strength. It has been said that building the strength to hold a pencil needs to start at birth!

The Hectic Business of Myelination

Babies, when born, can only lift their heads because their muscles are not yet developed. After a few months, they are able to sit, crawl and eventually walk, leaving their hands free for exploration. Similarly, when a child is born, their hands are closed and grasping is a reflex. Over time, however grasping becomes intentional as they realise that if they reach out, they can grab things. This is how come we see young children reaching for the tiniest speck on the floor and unsteadily bringing this to their mouths to explore further.

We hear that children need to move, and we know that movement has its benefits in physical fitness but there is definitely more to gross movement.  It links to fine motor skills and the pencil grip. Purposeful activity supports the creation and development of the neural connections – myelination.

Myelination can be seen as being like a plastic coating that protects an electrical cord.  This coating helps the nervous system to function correctly. Children will only gain full control of their bodies through effort. It is through constant repetition and practice that children’s movement becomes refined.

The process begins at the head and works its way gradually down the body centred around the spinal column.  It starts at the mouth (first month), then the head (second months) rolling over (between four and five months) to sitting (after 6 months) and eventually walking (anytime for 9 months). Children MUST put in a tremendous amount of practice. This movement does eventually become unconscious and so frees not only the child’s hands but also allows the brain to process other things.

This myelination process begins before birth and takes approximately 15 years. Once the myelin process has reached the spinal cord, it then moves out to the arms, then the hands and finally reaching the fingers. This order ensures that the large muscles necessary for coordination and getting from here to there are well organised and in controlled, before taking on the complex muscles in the hands.

Then on to Gross Motor Movement

The book A Moving Child is a Learning Child states “Climbing, hanging, swinging, and any other high-energy activities that build strength in his upper body and core muscles are vital precursors to fine motor skills”. (McCarthy, C. Connell, G. p.236).


Before we worry too much about pencil grip, we must begin with the larger muscles. It is often said “Children need the practice – you don’t”.  Give children the time to crawl themselves, to walk themselves and to run themselves – let them help you to carry the washing in – slow down and let them do it. The mind, body and hands should always be thought of together, meaning that they should work together – and this only comes with practice, practice, practice.

And here is where the monkey bars come in…they have been discovered to be a great benefit to improve core strength.  They are a great way for children to develop their gross motor skills and visual hand eye co-ordination as they learn to swing from one bar to the next.  You have probably seen how children set challenges for themselves: swinging from one end to the other, maybe skipping a bar and turning upside down. They are developing their core strength and these are the muscles that must develop before the finer muscles.

Swinging and hanging upside down on monkey bars helps children to enhance their balance and develop a solid sense of their body’s position in space. This makes other physical activities easier, including sitting still for longer periods – needed for today’s classroom setting.

A little side thought here too that doing monkey bars requires the use of every muscle and tissue from the tips of their fingers to the lower body. The pulling motion needed also encourages lung inflation and bladder support, simply because of the way our muscles are connected and are being used.  Incredible!

It has been seen that monkey bars have an enormous effect on the child’s confidence, stamina and emotional development. This begins as the child watches and absorbs other children swinging. Through hard work and perseverance, they become the child that can do it! Same as learning to write with a pencil.  We all want our child to become the one that can do it too.

And finally onto Pencil Grip (Fine motor Movement)

We can conclude that the benefits of monkey bars are numerous and critical to the foundation that sets the tone for your child’s school career.

The grip that children use to hold each monkey bar (thumb gripping underneath the bar) is the same natural grip used to hold a pencil. Strengthening their grip will make it easier for them to write. Children who have well developed gross motor skills find it easier to learn to write, cut and colour. In other words, the fine motor skills used for writing can only develop when the gross motor skills are developed.

Let’s change the focus in the classroom from starting on the fine motor skills to concentrating on developing core muscle strength. Bring on the monkey bars in the playground!  Once we are set there, we can be assured of getting the pencil grip right.

Join Waitlist Please note that we are currently only waitlisting rentals for KwaZulu-Natal based requests. If you live outside KwaZulu-Natal, please take a look at the 'Buy' portion of our web site as we do not rent gyms outside of KZN..