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Pen Pal Projects Mix Learning and Fun For Kids with Special Needs

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By Linda Broatch, M.A.

What kind of pen pal connection will work best for your child?

A first step in a successful pen pal project is to think about what kind of pen pal experience is likely to work best for your particular child. Her age, interests, social skills, and writing strengths or challenges are factors to consider. Based on your child's needs and preferences, you may encourage her to join an existing, more traditional type of pen pal network, or create one of your own.

Do-It-Yourself Pen Pal Projects

If your child is young, is a reluctant writer, or could use some work on social skills, a non-traditional and/or do-it-yourself pen pal project may work best. Examples of ways to create a pen pal experience for your child include:

  • Ask a family member or friend to be your child's pen pal. Your child may feel less anxious about her writing abilities if she's corresponding with an adult or older child she knows. And the older person can "carry a little more weight" in the written conversation, modeling how to communicate in a letter, introducing new topics, and asking questions.
  • Ask friends or family who are living or traveling in other cities, states, or countries to be a pen pal to your child, either short-term or long-term, as a way for your child to learn about new places and cultures.
  • Recruit a group of kids - friends or acquaintances from school, a sports team, or other group - for a summer pen pal network. It's a great way for kids to keep connected over the long school break.

In some cases, parents who organize a pen pal group may decide that the correspondence will work better with a few guidelines for participation. For example:

  • Expecting kids to respond to a letter from a pen pal within a certain period of time
  • Asking kids to write to pen pals using a "traditional" letter-writing style, rather than the less formal style typically used in instant messaging or text messaging
  • Encouraging kids to address certain topics, for example, stories about their summer or holiday activities or the places and people they visit
  • Encouraging kids to include postcards, drawings, or photographs can make letters more interesting and fun to receive
  • Offering the option, if they're young or have limited writing skills, to use photos or drawings as the focus of their letters, accompanied by brief captions that they write on their own or with help from an adult or older child

I would also tell your 9-to-12-year-old children a little about email sense/netiquette: that it's courteous to reply, that messages should be quality-an investment of yourself in the communication process-meaning that "Wassup?" or "I'm so bored" is not really a message/communication. If they can't think of something to write, they could look for a joke (e.g., yahooligans) and send that. They may need a little direction to get started."

Posted on parent message board

A popular way to increase the "fun factor" in pen pal communication is the "Flat Stanley" letter, started by a Canadian teacher several years ago. Flat Stanley is the main character in a children's book series about a boy who is flattened by a falling bulletin board and has many funny adventures in his new, postcard-thin shape-including mailing himself to friends.

As a copy or drawing of Flat Stanley circulates to each child in a pen pal project, Stanley "takes part" in family activities for a few days and then is mailed, along with a letter describing his activities, to the next child on a chain-letter list. Use your imagination to create a variation on the Flat Stanley project that will appeal to the pen pals you're working with.

I'm sending Flat Stanley today with the addresses I have now - BUT - don't worry. I put my address last, when it comes back to me, if there are others who wish for Stanley to visit them this summer, I'll send him on again with a new list of addresses at that time. Think of it as a chance for Stanley to come home for a day or two and wash his clothes before he finishes his travels. I'm thrilled at how many of us are jumping into this! How fun!!!!

Posted on parent message board

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

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"Hello! Thank you for your informative article on the pen pal projects for kids with special needs! I wanted to let you and your readers know about the Amazing Kids! PenPals program: The program is run by Amazing Kids!, a children's educational non-profit organization. Unlike the kinds of web-based pen pal programs you mentioned under 'Evaluating Pen Pal Websites for Safety and Privacy,' we offer a unique literacy-based traditional letter-writing program. We match gender to gender and age to age, as well as hobbies and interests (whenever possible). Parents and teachers register their students on our website, but the students write and receive letters via 'snail mail.' Kids especially love getting letters in the mail, while parents and teachers appreciate the fact that the program is helping reinforce literacy skills their children/students are learning in the classroom. The benefit of the Amazing Kids! PenPals program for special needs children is that the teacher or parent can help the child take the time they need to gather their thoughts, and compose their letters to their pen pals. There is no urgent rush to send a quick email, so special needs children have all the time they need to write their letters (most emails usually lack forethought, good grammar and good composition necessary for traditional letter writing.) We welcome inquiries at: Thank you. Alyse Rome Founder/President Amazing Kids! - Helping Kids Realize Their Potential, One Kid at a Time"