7 Ways to Write Without a Pencil


As educators, sometimes we need to get creative!  One of my first years teaching First Grade, I found myself standing in front of a large group of disinterested writers.  Whenever I said the words “Time for our Journal writing”… I heard audible groans and disgusted faces.  Paper and pencil wasn’t working and they were really growing weary of using our whiteboards to practice our CVC words and sounds.  So, I began to ponder how to incorporate some writing without a pencil activities I learned from some extremely creative Occupational Therapists in my early years of teaching in Early Intervention.  


Hands on, multi-sensory activities provide students more ways to connect to the content of the lesson making it more enjoyable and memorable.  When students are engaged, the activities result in a better memory of the skill taught.  Although all students can benefit from multi-sensory learning, it can be particularly helpful for kids who learn and think differently.  By incorporating some (or all) of these ideas in your room, you are taking into account the varying needs of all kids and their learning styles.  

Let’s check out how to incorporate 7 different ways of writing without a pencil to use during your next literacy lesson!   All of these materials could be easily used in any environment: Early Childhood up through School Age.  You can incorporate these ideas into any lesson or review of:  Sight Words, Spelling, Make-A-Word, Letter Recognition, Letter Sounds, etc.  

1. Shaving Cream Writing

I couldn’t imagine starting off this list of ideas with any other material.  Shaving cream is one of my students’ favorite activities (and mine)!  Kids love the texture and it doesn’t break the bank because I usually buy the cheap shaving cream at the Dollar Store.  I found this type of shaving cream is actually more fluffy and easier to work with.  

writing words in shaving cream

Some of my favorite aspects of using Shaving Cream:  1) It makes the classroom smell great!    2) Easy Clean Up:  I spray a bit on each student’s desktop.  I schedule this activity prior to the entire class leaving the classroom (Lunch, Recess, Specials) because it will dry on their desks and will be easier to wipe and clean up.  3) It provides a natural consequence if students are not following expectations.  At the end of the lesson I will always allow some time for students to draw in the remaining cream if desired.  However, when I am stating my expectations with the shaving cream, I always say that if you are drawing in it during the review or not using it to write your words (or letters) it will disappear and we can’t get another squirt.  

2. Sensory Trays 

writing letters and words in colored grains of rice

A teacher can be extremely creative using various materials on or in a tray!  I purchased a bunch of the small metal trays at the Dollar Store a few years back and still use them regularly!  They are great for magnetic letters as well as tactile manipulatives! The following list of materials are great to use to”write without a pencil”.

  • Sand
  • Kinesthetic Sand 
  • Beads
  • Buttons
  • Sprinkles 


Word Of Advice / After-thought…   Several years ago I forgot to mention in my directions and expectations “DON’T EAT THE SPRINKLES!”.   I allowed two students to work together in a center to practice writing their list of spelling words on the trays full of sprinkles.   I thought, how cute, colorful and one of those ‘teacher of the year’ moments to be so creative and motivating.   Well when my timer went off and my students frooze for directions I saw two sprinkle covered hands, two sprinkle covered lips, two sprinkle covered faces!   So always remember… “Don’t Eat the Sprinkles!”  or any of these materials for that matter!

3. Salt 

Who knew table salt was so practical?  Using those same trays I mentioned above I filled them with a layer of table salt.  Students are instructed to use a finger to write the prompt in the salt.  When finished they would take the sides of the tray and lightly shake it back and forth and the letters magically disappear!   I love using this because you can re-use the salt across multiple sessions by pouring it back into a container and students are more calm because they need to shake the tray lightly to erase or the magic doesn’t work.  Recently, on Pinterest I saw that you could put multi-colored paper down in the tray first, then the layer of salt on top.  When students are writing the letter or word it shows up multi-colored.  

write without a pencil in sand or another material

4. Hair Gel

I promise I am not going to suggest pouring it on the student’s desk, but into a ziploc bag!  Again, I buy the cheap stuff and you can add a few drops of coloring into the bag to make it more appealing  and try to take as much of the air out of the bag as you can.  Feel free to make it personalized by adding some glitter, small beads,etc into the bag.  Once the bag is sealed, I would suggest to tape it shut so little fingers cannot pry it open and spray the gel everywhere.

mix hair gel with glitter and food coloring in a ziplock bag, so students can practice writing without a pencil on the bag

Once complete the student can press and write onto the bag and the gel will move around creating the letters.  As an extra bonus, you can place the already written word underneath the bag and when the student is spelling it he/she could self-check and auto-correct as needed.  

5. Chocolate Pudding   (“Mud”) Writing

Okay, so this one I haven’t personally tried yet.  It has the same expectations as would the shaving cream and other mediums presented. By placing some chocolate pudding on a plate or tray, students can write without a pencil in “mud” to spell out different words and sounds.  

Oh…same rules apply… Don’t eat the mud!  

use pudding to finger-write words and letters in

6. Play Dough 

Play dough is so appealing for children and they love to use it in the classroom.  Using clay or play-dough it is probably easier to focus on creating letters and reviewing sounds. It is possible to create CVC words, but would more than likely be time consuming.  Using mats is a great way to go for students to review correct letter writing. 

"writing" letters of the alphabet in play dough
Students get to practice forming the letters and writing them with these Alphabet Play Dough Mats.


Another great twist with this topic is to make your own playdough in the classroom!  Here is a recipe for you to use and feel free to adapt it by adding glitter or a few drops of your favorite essential oils! 

neon glitter play dough recipe

7. Tactile Materials to Write

By using a variety of textures you can allow students to “feel” how to draw letters.  You can cut out pieces and glue them together to form the various letters of the alphabet for students to trace with their fingers. 

  • Sandpaper Letters
  • Leather 
  • Yarn
  • Different clothing textures (time to cut up those old pairs of jeans or stained shirt)
  • Fuzz Felt 
  • Dried Glue (write the letter or word in elmer’s glue and allow it to dry, you can see and feel the raised glue)
  • Glitter Letters

glitter writing and raised glue writing

I hope this list provided some inspiration for you to incorporate into your classroom or at home with your own kids.  With all of these materials, I always provide alternative options for writing with them.  Some students may have sensory or tactile concerns and to make sure everyone can participate I provide some alternatives.   Instead of using a finger or their hands, other options include:  unsharpened pencil – use the eraser side, Q-tips, paintbrush).  If you have any other suggestions or materials you use in your practice to write without a pencil and paper please comment below!

Written by: Christopher Olson

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