Mechanical pencils vs. wooden pencils – both have benefits for kids. There are great options out there to support writing and drawing. Find out which is better based on your student’s age, needs and pencil pressure. Help guide kids and also consider their personal preference.
As a school-based occupational therapist, I often get questions regarding what types of pencils to use with kids. There are many great options of pencils out there, it’s hard for teachers and parents to know what is best.
Two good and common options of pencils to use with kids for writing and drawing are a traditional wooden pencil or a mechanical pencil.
Younger kids have different needs regarding the types of writing tools they need. As they get older and have to write more in second grade and beyond, the debate begins regarding mechanical pencils over traditional wooden pencils.
It’s difficult to give a one size fits all answer because it depends on student ages and needs. And as students get older, it also becomes a personal preference. As adults, we also have our own personal preferences when it comes to writing utensils.
I tend to use a mixture of both types of pencils during my occupational therapy sessions with kids.
Mechanical Pencils vs Wooden Pencils and General Pencil Guidelines for Kids
When it comes to the question of wooden pencils vs. mechanical pencils for elementary kids, wooden pencils are widely used with the majority of school age kids. Mechanical pencils are helpful to use with kids who have force modulation problems. A mechanical pencil, also called a clutch pencil, holds the pencil lead in the plastic pencil case with a jawed pressure clamp / clutch mechanism.
Young children in preschool and kindergarten require play and learning experiences that prepare the hand for grasping a pencil. Kindergarteners and first graders benefit from having different pencil options available based on their developing hands and fine motor skills. A variety of writing tools and writing surfaces are helpful.
As kids transition to second grade, they are writing much more. As they move through each year after this, they progressively write more and for longer periods of time. Kids also need more technical drawing skills for learning projects. A good pencil is important during the school day. This is typically when I help explain my OT perspective on the plastic mechanical pencils vs. normal wooden pencils.
The pros and cons of each type of pencil are listed below.
Benefits of Wooden Pencils for Kids When Writing
Wooden pencils are the most commonly used pencil in elementary schools. They’re cheaper to buy in bulk. There are so many different types of wooden pencils available for a variety of grasping needs for kids of all ages.
Wood-cased pencils are sturdier. They provide a traditional feel when using and sharpening them. A popular pencil (has been for a long time.)
Plus, wooden pencils come in fun and cool designs for special occasions to throw in your prize box.
The good thing about using wooden pencils is that in the long run, they last for longer periods of time without the added upkeep from needing to buy and/or refill the lead. No need to wonder what size mm lead is needed to refill, and where it’s being stored!
The lead does not break as often in a wooden pencil due to the wood casing. Kids are able to sharpen wooden pencils as pointy or round as they’d like.
Additionally, when it comes to sharpening wooden pencils, it’s a great fine motor activity for kids. (I often save up my pencils during my OT sessions and have certain kids sharpen them that need to work on bilateral coordination and hand strength. This task is also a good one for my sensory kids who need heavy work for their hands.)
Kids use bilateral integration skills when sharpening. One hand has to stabilize while the other does the work.
Additionally, kids need hand strength and grip strength to hold the pencil still while moving the sharpener. Whether kids use a small, handheld sharpener, one on the wall or an electric sharpener- they’re working on fine motor strength, bilateral coordination, and upper body stability skills.
Cons of Wooden Pencils for Kids
The downfalls of wood pencils: the inconsistent lead size and the frequent sharpening. When the lead tip starts to become dull, it decreases the control of the pencil.
This does not matter as much for younger kids. Young kids write bigger and have more space to form letters and numbers. But with older students who write smaller in tinier spaces, a dull wooden pencil decreases their control. It can cause writing to be a little more messy and the lead is more prone to smudge across the paper. (And often harder to completely erase.)
The other downfall of wooden pencils is the need to sharpen them more often. (And it’s sometimes difficult to find a good sharpener.) Even though wood-cased pencils are more sturdy, some kids find a way to break the tips (often on purpose) only to give them a reason to get up and re-sharpen in the middle of your lesson. It can be a bit disruptive to the learning process!
However, you can come up with a nice system to avoid nonstop, disruptive sharpening throughout the day. Schedule a specified time during the day for students to sharpen pencils.
Have a cup of extra wooden pencils in a non-distracting part of the room (not in the front.)
Or you can create a classroom job for students who need the extra heavy work for the hands and the motor coordination practice.
These students can sharpen all the replacement pencils before the day begins. (Or at the end of the day to prepare for the next day.)
Benefits of Mechanical Pencils for Elementary Kids When Writing
The benefits of using mechanical pencils (sometimes also called a clutch pencil) are that they don’t need to be sharpened, they improve control and consistency when writing, they require precise fine motor skills, and they help with writing pressure problems.
Mechanical pencils always have a nice sharp point for writing. The pencil leads are easily accessible. The lead is dispersed immediately without the use of a sharpener.
This is great for precise control when writing and drawing fine details. The lead size is always consistent with a mechanical pencil. Older students who write smaller are able to complete math, drawing and printing with more consistent neatness and legibility. Mechanical pencils are great for technical drawings due to the precision.
There are several different sizes of lead so you can choose the thickness that a student needs. Mechanical pencils also offer various lead grades (click this link to see a website with a graphite grading scale image.)
Additionally, when students have to carry pencils in between classes, the mechanical pencils are safer because the tip can be placed back in the plastic pencil shaft. If carried in a pencil case, it doesn’t get graphite lead all over the inside of the case!
Fine Motor Skills Used When Operating a Mechanical Pencil
Kids use fine motor skills when they operate and fill the mechanical pencil. Depending on the pencil design, kids use strength from either the thumb or index finger to press more lead out of the tip. They use the thumb on the clicky pencils at the top of the eraser to press the lead pipe out. On other pencil designs, kids use the index finger to push the button near the tip to release the lead.
To fill the mechanical pencil, kids use precise fine motor movements to open the refill lead holder and carefully place the pencil leads in the tip. Some types of mechanical pencils have longer erasers built in with a twisting mechanism.
Many kids I’ve worked with take pride in using the plastic mechanical pencils. I often see them start to care more about writing neatly when they have this adult-like writing utensil. For them, they don’t realize I’m helping with control, they see it as a special privilege.
Mechanical Pencil Benefits for Kids with Pencil Pressure Problems
Mechanical pencils are really helpful for children who have trouble with writing pressure. They have force modulation problems and cannot control the amount of pressure they need to use.
Kids with writing pressure problems either write with too little pressure or with too much pressure.
The ones who write with too little pressure create very light marks. Their marks are hard to see or are not even visible at all. These kids sometimes hold the pencil so lightly in their hands with the pads of all their fingertips. Some will also float their arm above the desktop when writing.
Mechanical pencils with smaller diameters of lead size (0.5 mm mechanical pencil) are beneficial for this type of student because they don’t require much force to make marks on paper. Once the student learns to press with more force, they can try thicker mm pencil lead sizes.
On the contrary, there are kids with pencil pressure problems who press too hard when writing. They have difficulty with sensory motor awareness (proprioceptive input) and have to press really hard to feel it.
Their hands and brains need more feedback. A mechanical pencil with thicker leads (0.7 mm or 0.9 mm) are helpful. There will still be some frequent breakage of the tip until the student adjusts, but these are great training tools. Pencil companies also offer a variety of lead grades.
Cons of Mechanical Pencils
The downfalls of using mechanical pencils with kids are the initial expense, the extra attention to help train kids when using, and the responsibility and skills needed to maintain them.
Mechanical pencils can be more expensive than wooden pencils to purchase initially. In the long run, they are actually a little bit more cost effective because you only have to replace the lead.
However, the lead refills can be hard to keep track of and eventually misplaced. The plastic and plastic parts also break more easily than wooden pencils on cheaper / less pricey options.
Some mechanical pencils can create a scratchy sound and feeling when writing which can bother some students. It’s like nails on a chalkboard for them.
Another downfall of mechanical pencils is the additional training of some kids when using them. Some kids need cues to not intentionally break mechanical pencil lead. Especially since the thin lead can easily pop off and fly away… it can quickly become a fun game for some.
I often make a rule of “if you break it three times during one writing task, you lose it.” But this rule is only for the ones that giggle after the first break, instead of saying oops!
Wooden Pencil and Mechanical Pencil Recommendations by an Occupational Therapist
For younger children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, their first pencils should be wooden jumbo, triangle or short thick.
Smaller golf pencils are helpful for some kindergarten students and first graders to encourage a better grip.
After this, any #2 normal wood pencil will do! There are #1 wooden pencils available that are helpful for students who don’t use enough pressure, but they tend to smudge more.
A good first mechanical pencil would be the short, 3 inch pencils. These are good for kids who try to place all of their fingers on the pencil or who need to improve their motor skills (they have better control without the long pencil shaft.)
The mechanical pencil thicknesses you should use are 0.5mm for kids who press too lightly. For kids who press too hard, 0.7mm or 0.9mm are good starting thicknesses.
In summary, there are pros and cons for each type of pencil to use with kids. The better option depends on a student’s age and needs. Some are fine using traditional normal wooden pencils while others benefit from the plastic mechanical pencils. Additionally, as a student gets older, they tend to develop their own personal preference when they learn what works best for their hand when writing and drawing.
For Related Fine Motor and Writing Tips:
- For students of all ages, correct sitting posture is important for writing, drawing and fine motor tasks. Check out Proper Seated Posture for Students – An Important Tip! Encourage a proper seated position for writing. The chair size should fit the child and the desk height should be appropriate.
- Just today, I was in a 5th grade classroom during writing and grammar. All but 4 students were sitting at tables that came up to their collarbones! The teacher and I chatted and we are reaching out to have custodial staff lower the tables for the students as soon as possible!
- The Best and Quickest Handwriting Warm Up Exercises – this post has some easy to use exercises for kids’ hands prior to writing.
- For children learning to form letters, this post is a must read: Teach Kids to Form Letters Properly with These 9 Helpful Tips. Many pediatric occupational therapists can’t stress enough the importance of teaching proper letter formation. Encourage and reinforce correct formation for children.
- Build up hand strength needed for tasks during the school day with 107 Hand Strengthening Activities for Kids. Help your kids develop stronger bodies and hands.
Articles Linked Throughout This Post:
Pencil Pressure When Writing – Are There Force Modulation Problems? – Mechanical pencils are great for helping with pencil pressure problems. This post has several additional graded force activities – use them to help kids who press too hard or not hard enough.
Development of Pencil Grasp – This post shares 5 simple foundational activities that support pencil grasp development and fine motor skills.
Vertical Surface and Floor Activities to Improve Core – Check out how simply changing the writing surface can help improve skills needed for writing.
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