The age-old art of letter writing is still alive and well with pen pals for kids. Whether it's online or through the mail, children of all ages can correspond with others through a variety of pen pal programs.
What is a Pen Pal?
A pen pal is a friend you make through correspondence. This can be done via the Internet through e-mail and kids' chat rooms or via the U.S. Post Office with hand-written letters. Educators encourage students to have pen pals as they promote literacy, reading and writing in a foreign language and learning about other countries. Some pen pal relationships last only a short time, while others can go on for many years. Pen pals for kids come in all ages, nationalities and cultures.
Snail Mail Pen Pals
The idea of pen pal relationships has been around for generations. In the eras before the Internet, friendship letters, as they were often called, were written out long-hand and mailed through the post office. If your pen pal lived on the other side of world, it would take weeks for the correspondence to go back and forth. Friends exchanged letters, pictures and other miscellaneous items or "tuck-ins" including:
- Postcards from their hometown or native land
- Postage stamps
- Newspaper clippings
- Any other flat item that could fit in an envelope.
One of the oldest pen pals for kids' clubs dates back to the 1930s. The Student Letter Exchange is also the world's largest organization of its kind, with more than 500,000 participants each year. This group was founded when a teacher wanted to add spark to his classroom, so he started a program where his students wrote and exchanged letters with other schools around the world. The Student Letter Exchange has matched students in more than 100 countries, some of whom have stayed in touch through their adult lives.
Online Pen Pals
There are many pen pals for kids' organizations that offer safe, reliable and friendly Web sites. Children, with parental approval of course, can e-mail, join chat rooms or list messages on forums regarding pen pals. Many of these sites for pen pals require a completed application and prior approval. Once that happens, kids can receive names and e-mail addresses of others in the organization who are of the same age and share similar interests.
There are also some Web sites dedicated to classroom correspondences only. Teachers are the only ones with access and share information from other classroom pen pals with their students.
Safety Tips for Pen Pal Exchanges
With most kids having Internet access at their fingertips, having an online pen pal or "e-pal" can be easy to do, but a child's safety must be the main concern. Parents, educators and other adults who are allowing their students and children to have pen pals -- both online or offline -- should enforce these safety tips:
- Children should use only their first names.
- Personal information, including your hometown or school, should not be given to anyone.
- Never agree to meet your pen pal in person unless a parent or teacher is present.
- Obscene messages should be immediately forwarded to a responsible adult.
- Do not send any photos unless parental approval is given.
- Do not share any computer or Internet passwords with an online pen pal.
- If you are unsure or uncomfortable with the Web site or organization offering pen pals for kids, check with your parents or teacher.
Sending Our Soldiers a Message
In May 2004, the Thomas family of Simi Valley, California, started Pen Pals for Soldiers as a means of garnering support and raising morale of U.S. troops overseas. The group's mission is to ensure no soldier is forgotten at mail call. There are several ways children and their parents can help the soldiers through this organization:
- Write a letter to a service man or woman. The group gives the names of soldiers or sailors serving overseas, and children can write to them as much as possible. Soldiers can be great pen pals for kids because they can teach youngsters about the military and life in a foreign country. Kids can boost troops' morale by hearing about the good things going on "back home."
- With a parent's permission, kids can also send care packages to U.S. soldiers overseas. This can be done by a donation ($20) to Pen Pals for Soldiers or by putting together simple packages that include:
- Puzzle books
- Postage stamps
- Blank holiday cards
- Photos from home
- Disposable cameras
- Travel size toiletries
- Chewing gum
Packages can take up to four weeks to get to their overseas destinations. Letters take two to four weeks. For other restrictions, check with your local U.S. Post Office.
Pen Pals for Kids Resources
- International Pen Friends -- This pen pal club pairs kids with new friends in their own age group from countries around the world. Pen pals correspond through the mail and the group does not use the Internet to match pen pals.
- EPals -- This teacher-supervised, online group connects classrooms globally through the Internet. Besides letter-writing, students share and exchange classroom projects.
- Circle of Friends Pen Pal Club -- This international club is for girls only who are looking for pen pals. E-mail is exchanged, but members may communicate through other means.