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HomeLearning DifficultiesHealth & Development

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

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By Linda Broatch, M.A.

To add interest and motivation to your pen pal project, you may find helpful the following children's books and many others like them.

Ages 4 to 8

Arthur's Pen Pal by Lillian Hoban

My Pen Pal, Pat by Lisa Papademetriou

Ages 9 to 12

My Pen Pal Scrapbook: An Educational Journey through World Cultures by Shelley Aliotti

The Birthday Mystery/with Puzzle (Puzzling Pen Pal Mysteries) by Patricia Lakin

Amy's Pen Pal (Sweet Valley Twins) by Francine Pascal

More Traditional Pen Pal or "Key Pal" Projects

There are dozens - if not hundreds - of pen pal websites on the Internet, facilitating both email and postal mail correspondence. ("Key pal" - as in keyboarding - is a common term for pen pal partners who write to each other using email.) The potential social-emotional benefits of online communication among kids with learning disabilities (LD) are described in a recent two-year study by Drs. Marshall Raskind, Malka Margalit , and Eleanor Higgins2. They examined exchanges among kids ages 8 to 12 on SparkTop.org™, a website designed for children with LD and reported: "It appears that the Internet served as a safe virtual environment, enabling children with LD to explore and express the totality of their identity. Furthermore, the feeling that they are not alone in experiencing difficulties - because they belong to a group of children who share similar difficulties - was regarded by several children as a source of relief from their struggles. "

Evaluating Pen Pal Websites for Safety and Privacy

Pen pal websites vary enormously in their appropriateness for children. Some serve simply as a "clearinghouse," listing the names, ages, languages, and interests of prospective pen pals, and leaving people to make contacts on their own, using their personal email accounts. On the other end of the spectrum are pen pal clubs that are part of a social networking website designed for kids, where each child registers under the auspices of a teacher or parent, monitored communication takes place on the website, and high-level privacy and safety protections are in place.

To evaluate a website's privacy and safety standards, read the "privacy policy" and "terms of service." Best practices dictate that a website's privacy policy should be available through a link on the website's homepage and at each area where personal information is collected from users. (United States law actually requires this for all websites aimed at children under age 13.)

Read the policy closely to learn:

  • the kinds of personal information being collected,
  • how it will be used, and
  • whether it will be passed on to third parties.

If you find a website that doesn't post basic protections for children's personal information, ask for details about their information collection practices. (Source: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/kidzprivacy/adults.htm)

One practical approach to finding a trustworthy online pen pal project is to ask teachers or other parents for recommendations of websites that they have found safe and fun for kids your child's age. Regardless of where they socialize online, children of all ages should be taught the basics of safe social networking on the Internet.

In Closing

My son was reluctant [to write to a pen pal] until he got his first letter from a pen pal - boy was he excited! His letter back to his pen pal was the first time he sat and "wrote" independently - he even asked me to leave while he wrote the last several sentences (they were a funny story about me) on his own! We are cooking here!

WishIKnew
Posted on parent message board

To the extent that your child has fun and communicates independently, she will have experienced two of the most important benefits of writing to a pen pal-the self-confidence and motivation to write. As a parent, do only as much as necessary to get the pen pal project started and keep it on track. Then step back so that your child can take the initiative to stretch her reading, writing, and social skills - and have fun with a potential new friend.

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 GreatSchools.org readers

11/15/2011:
"Hi , I am a mother of a 9 year old girl Nurjahan she has L D and I tried to get her spark top it let me enter all the info.Problem is I live in Bangladesh and on their registration it says to enter a province but it some how won't let me and so I can't get her on the sight I am rely trying to get her a program that would help her please contact me.Thank you Maryam "
12/15/2009:
"Hi there, I am an adult with learning difficulties,In 1973 I had to go to a special school, I was not getting on ok at mainstream school. it was called sidestrand hall cromer uk I got on ok there but didnot like the boarding part of it I got homesick! I was only allowed to go home every other weekend. now though,I think I do ok for myself. just thought you would be interested in my little story about my self."
06/11/2009:
"Is there anything such school in Arizona known as a great school. We may be relocating and from what I see the school there are pretty low. My son nis in a top 10 school district in PA (Lower Merion, MOntgomery County). Thanks, Mimi"
05/7/2009:
"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: http://www.amazing-kids.org/AKPenPals.html 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: penpals@amazing-kids.org Thank you. Alyse Rome Founder/President Amazing Kids! - Helping Kids Realize Their Potential, One Kid at a Time www.amazing-kids.org"
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