This post is written by Melissa & Doug guest editor Anna Ritchie.
Growing up, I had a number of different ‘pen pals’: Kids from other schools as part of a writing project, neighbors or friends who moved away, or even my dolls and stuffed animals as part of my imaginary play. Although letter-writing is, to many, a “dying art” – I strongly feel that the fundamentals of letter writing can help transform your budding writers into storytellers who are able to organize their internal thoughts, and express them in a cohesive way for an outside audience.
Simply put: being a pen pal early-on can help your kid develop some really important life-long reading, writing, and comprehension skills. But how can we get kids interested in doing so?
How to Be a Pen Pal
Luckily, my sisters and I share the same passion for letter writing, and this winter (at my sister’s suggestion) started a pen-pal project between Little Miss and her cousin, T. (who is not even one yet, so really the practice benefits are more on our end). As a holiday gift, my sister wrapped up the following little gift box for us:
- 1 package of cards and envelopes
- 1 book of stamps
- A detailed note that showed, by example, what all the different parts of “letter writing” were, including how to address envelopes, how to start letters with a greeting, and more
My little one immediately jumped on this concept. For starters, she LOVES to write; she’ll sit at her desk with her “mailbox” and write little letters to her cousins and friends without being asked.
Though the idea of being a “pen pal” really struck her, the tricky part was (which is always a challenge when writing Thank-You notes) how to teach her to organize ideas without being too controlling over the process. Some thoughts:
1) Practice Greetings
Having a card or piece of letter-paper to work with means you have limited space to work with. This is sometimes a challenge for kids learning to write smaller letters. So, I provided a “Dear ______” at the top of the card so that she could easily see where to write, and also provided guidance on how small her letters should be.
2) Chunk Letters Into “Sections”
The dreaded “what do I write about?” question! I have always found that breaking letters up into “sections” helps to practice organizing thoughts without rambling, while providing a focus and flow to your letters. For these pen pal letters to her little cousin, Little Miss decided that she wanted to share what she got for Christmas, and that she will be getting her ears pierced soon.
So, we broke up the letter into sections:
- A Thank You for the last note, and something she enjoyed from it
- What happened to her recently that she’s excited about
- What is going to happen soon that she is looking forward to (this gives the wrtiter on the other end a topic to start with)
- A “something nice” statement. I describe these as a “thinking about you” or “miss you a lot” or “hope to see you soon”. It’s that little personal touch that closes a letter.
3) Ask Questions
One of the things I try to emphasize is the need to ask people about what they are doing, just as much as you share what you’re doing. This external focus can provide strong listening skills as well, if you start getting kids tuned-into to the need to think of others as much as themselves.
4) Address and Send!
This was a tricky step, since envelopes provide very little space to write. We used a pencil for that very reason, and after a few “erases” finally had a finished envelope. We talked about where the stamp goes, licked it closed, and voila! She had a letter to her cousin that she was proud of, and excited to send.
The best part? The smile on her face when she receives a letter back. Sitting at her desk, we practice our reading and go through the letter together, talking about the different things in there, and giggling at what the “baby” is doing at that point. So not only does the activity provide some important letter writing and reading practice, but it keeps us connected with our family members, even when they’re far away. A great and personal way to “bridge-the-gap” between periods of seeing each other.
P.S. Kudos to my sister for the gift idea.
Anna Ritchie is a writer, stepmom, and marketer. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Little Miss, and Sandy the pup.