Wednesday, January 04, 2012


A few years ago, we had to quadruple our Hot Wheels collection because we, in a quirk of demographics, enrolled an extra large class of 2-year-old boys. We were forced to make the investment because so many of those boys desired to have a car clutched in each fist.

I've been thinking about writing this post for a few days. I'd assumed
that I didn't need to take any extra photos of kids clutching things
because, well, it's so prevalent I was certain that I'd already have plenty
of photos of the phenomenon. But I was wrong. I take a lot of pictures
of hands (in fact I take mostly pictures of hands) but I'm so focused on
what the children are "doing" that I didn't have any of a child simply
clutching something. At best I have these pictures in which a child
is showing me something, often while I'm trying to get a snapshot
of something else entirely. 

They all pick things up and carry them around, some more than others, but they all do it at some time or another. Sometimes it's a kind of treasured item, like with the Hot Wheels. In any given class there are always girls who have a stuffed animal or doll from the classroom collection that they clutch while moving from place to place, perhaps placing it carefully beside them while, say, making a painting, but picking it up again the moment their hands are free.

I'm not talking about those special comfort items from home, nor even about our classroom items being used as surrogate comfort items, although there is some of that. And I'm not even necessarily talking about special items, like cars or dolls. I'm thinking rather about a stage of play most 2-year-olds seem to go through in which clutching items is the main obvious feature of their play.

They arrive in class with this tendency, I see them in the world around me clutching mom's keys or a rock they've picked up off the ground, and now it's already starting to fade a bit as we're 4 months into our school year. But at any given moment there are still a half dozen children in the room, walking around with something clutched in their hands: a pizza wheel from the play dough table, a pawn from Candyland, the magnifying glass we keep near the tadpoles, a domino. 

It's such a universal behavior that it must be an important thing. For the longest time I just thought it was mostly about not knowing or caring or remembering the convention of picking things up then putting them down, because so often they only put what they clutch down when they spot something else to clutch, usually dropping the first item where they stand, without looking back.

So how does that work? When I clutch an item, I immediately discover things about it's weight, it's texture, it's shape, it's temperature.

When I walk around the room with an item in my fist, adults remark on the item, saying things like, "You have a magnifying glass," or "That belongs on the red table," and when they do I begin to learn something about what I'm holding. After enough people say the words "magnifying glass," I know what it's called. After enough people tell me it belongs on the red table I know that's where it goes.

I try using the item I clutch instead of my hands, perhaps using it to splash water or to apply paint to my paper. Sometimes those results aren't a whole lot different than with my hands or the "approved" tools. Sometimes what happens is not pleasant at all, like when I get water in my eyes. Sometimes the results are worth repeating, like what happens when I drive a car through paint.

Sometimes when I clutch something it causes the other people to freak out. For instance, the other children might wail or try to grab it back or hit me. What an incredible thing that is! Sometimes the adults try to persuade me, or even compel me to stop clutching it, saying things like, "Johnny had it first," or "That's dangerous!" Who knew? Now I do. Or at least I will after clutching those items a few more times.

So why wouldn't I want to clutch items? Who knows what's going to happen simply by holding onto something and going about my life. 

Clutching, I've come to understand, isn't a behavior so much as a series of very earnest questions.

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Briana said...

This is such a great observation! I have noticed infants using a simliar method to clasp onto their world as they are beginning to walk. Usually it is objects much larger that they squat or bend to pick up then move. I have found the more awkward, the better.
I wonder if this need to physically be connected to the world through the parts simply continues, the objects growing smaller and smaller, as their knowledge solidifies and their familiarness and confidence expands.

The Creative Toe said...

My little boy does this, usually with a hair. Perhaps it can be used as a comparative tool - the child can use the clutched item as a base to contrast with other things?

Anonymous said...

My son is 23 months. He's been an avid clutcher for about six months now, something I never really noticed with my two older daughters. He's never been one to put things in his mouth and he loves to clutch things that are generally too small to allow toddlers to have, like dice or a barbie shoe. he loves to have something he can fit in the palm of his hand. He clutched a die for three weeks straight several months ago. He'd drop in in his sleep, then look for it in his bed as soon as he was awake. His sisters learned that clutching comforts him, so if he's upset they look around for something small to give him and it usually calms him down before a tantrum starts.

Juliette said...

My son did this from pretty much when he started crawling at 7 months to maybe about 11 or 12 months, so much younger than you are describing here, and I've always been curious about the behaviour as I was quite surprised that I never saw it mentioned anywhere. He never did when crawling around at home - only if we were out somewhere. He'd find an object and carry it in his hand on his travels for the duration that we were there. I suppose I'd speculated that it was a comfort thing of some sort although he didn't e.g. suck it.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

Just before the snowfall, I took a walk with my two year old. She wanted to clutch milkweed pods. Lots of them. When her little fists were full, she'd transfer them to me till my pockets were full. Then a shiny stone caught her eye. I didn't wear that coat for awhile; then the other day, I did. I put my hand in my pocket, only to withdraw milkweed crumbs and a bunch of grey gravel...what to her, were treasures worth exploring through touch.