When I was in about 5th grade, I found an ad at the end of a children’s magazine to get a pen-pal from another country. With a #2 pencil, I bubbled in my name, my interests, and the top countries I was interested in: Yugoslavia (as it was called!), Mexico, Australia.
In a couple of weeks I was matched with “Liliana from Yugoslavia”- we ended up writing for more than 10 years before we lost touch! It was an incredible experience to exchange pictures (I still have her stoic 5th grade school picture), stories from our schools, postcards from our vacations, etc. I remember the excitement of coming home from school and finding her letter on my bed: foreign stamps scattered across a colored envelope, addressed to me with her curly, distinctive handwriting. I can even recall when she told me I needed to start to address her letter to Macedonia, because it had declared independence and was its own country.
Writing to a pen-pal in another country can facilitate lifelong friendships- and at a minimum it creates a great learning experience that enhances social studies, geography, penmanship, and language skills. There are a couple of different ways to go about finding a pen-pal for your kids from another country.
1) Ask everyone you know.
Ask family, friends, and neighbors if they have a loved one abroad who would like a pen-pal. They might know an expat abroad, someone in the military based in another country, someone who is studying abroad, working as a missionary, a volunteer, or even have relatives who live in their home country. Make the connection with them and decide together if the pen-pals and your children would like to communicate via email, or if everyone is comfortable to dust off their stationary and mail letters through the post. There are advantages of both. Via email, your kids get almost instant gratification. If their writing partner uses a digital camera, it is easy to share a lot of pictures, and perhaps their pen-pal even posts to a blog where your kids can write back in the comments section. However, in many countries internet is not as widely used as we are used to. The advantages of old fashioned paper and pen are many.
Kids practice their writing skills, can send drawings and cards, learn to address and stamp an envelope, and enjoy going to the post office to buy special international stamps. Although there is some patience involved (you might wait months before getting a letter back from some remote locations), the excitement of getting a letter in the mail with their name on it is not lost in our digital age. Despite the expense, my kids have enjoyed sending little packages and homemade cards (especially at the holidays) to family members abroad, and of course they love receiving little presents even more.
2) Find a teacher or homeschooling parent who is looking for a pen-pal for their children.
There are a lot of web sites that over pen-pal “matchmaking” services. I personally am a little nervous about individuals who post here, because there is no background check or identify verification. Never post your personal information on the internet for all to see, and I would prohibit my kids from visiting chat rooms, where identities are unknown. However, when it is a teacher, at a school, and you can see the school’s web site, it is more secure. At a very popular site, Students of the World, teachers can post their country of origin, or search the posts to find a suitable class with whom they can exchange letters. Another popular, ePals, you can search the maps, and the various forums for people looking for pen-pals. Many times teachers will be looking for class partners, but there are also homeschooling families, and individual students searching for pen-pals. You could also register and post your own search.
3) Sign-up to correspond with a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).
There is a program for teachers in the US to be matched with a PCV through the “Wordwise Schools” program. When I was teaching Spanish, we had a volunteer based in Bolivia, who would share incredible stories with us in English and Spanish. A man on a burro came to pick up the mail every month from her high Andean village, and we exchanged letters once every couple of months. Not only did it give my students a chance to practice Spanish, it also gave us a glimpse of part of the world we probably won’t ever get a chance to visit. From their site:
A vibrant two-year exchange of ideas, stories, pictures, and artifacts that helps U.S. students in the classroom learn about the people, geography, environment, and culture of the world from the direct experience of Volunteers living in other countries.”
4) Write to military personnel based in faraway countries.
There are many, many organization who will put you in contact with a man or woman in the military. Adopt-a-Soldier, Soldiers’ Angels are 2 popular organizations that support the US military. If you would like to write to someone in the HM Forces (UK), try Diedre’s Forces Penpal Service.
So get started today: find a pen-pal and locate their location on the globe. Find out more about their city or country from books in the library or on-line. Get some fun stationary for your kids, and be available to help them write their first letters. When you go to mail the first letter, buy several stamps of the correct amount, so that you are ready when the next letter comes. Have your kids draw some pictures, send a photo, ask questions- have fun with this intercultural exchange!