In 1998, the Family Learning Association published a book entitled "With Love, Grandma: Letters to Grandchildren." Co-authors Carl B. Smith and Naomi Ritter were convinced that the letters that seniors write to children can be powerful statements of caring and respect. They also recognized that letter-writing can be an excellent tool for improving literacy and promoting intergenerational communication. Although the book focuses on letter-writing between grandparents and their grandchildren, it was an outgrowth of Smith's work for Senior Partners in Education, an organization that encouraged seniors to write letters to at-risk youth. Letters to children can convey warmth and meaning in a life-altering way.
Learn as much as possible about the children to whom you are writing. Know their reading ability as well as their interests and what they are learning in school. If necessary, ask the adults in their lives for helpful background information to get you started. Trucker Buddy is an organization that establishes penpal relationships between classes of students and professional truck drivers (See References 2). Truckers are advised to speak to the teacher if they are having difficulty determining what information is appropriate to include in letters to the children. Once the letters begin flowing back and forth, the decision about what to write in your letters will be less difficult.
Be creative when selecting your writing paper. If you are writing to grandchildren or children whom you know well, consider the children's special interests and purchase stationery or note cards with these interests in mind. For example, if you know the children like soccer or ballet, make an effort to track down suitable card stock. Alternatively, add small drawings or stickers to the border of plain writing paper. The effort you make at this stage of your writing project will help to generate enthusiasm when the children open your letter.
Use a "friendly letter" format when writing your letters (See References 3). Model proper formatting to reinforce good letter-writing habits. Write your mailing address and the date clearly in the upper right-hand corner of the paper in order to simplify matters for children when they wish to write back. Include the date so children can organize and keep track of the letters you send.
Open your letters with a lighthearted greeting that radiates your own enthusiasm. If you know the names of the children or are addressing a classroom of children, include the identifying information in the greeting to make your letters more personal. For example, write "Hi, Sandy and Bill," or "Dear Ms. Carol's class." If you do not have specific information about the children, a cheerful "Hi, kids" will suffice. If you are responding to letters that the children have already sent to you, follow your greeting with a word of praise about the children's past writing efforts. Express how much you appreciated hearing from them. Doing so will encourage their writing efforts.
Write five or six short, newsy sentences that serve as a window into your world. For example, write, "You won't believe what happened on Sunday. It snowed so much, I couldn't open the front door!" Follow your bit of news with a question. Ask for the child's opinion about or reaction to what happened. For example, "What would you have done?" or "Do you like living in Florida where you don't have to worry about snow?" Enclose a sketch you made, a photograph or a small souvenir such a train ticket or map of the museum you visited and refer to the item in your letter.
Children are naturally curious about even mundane events, so tell them about your everyday life. Share your enthusiasm about something that the children may not have experienced. Write about your recent trip to the farmers' market, how your Japanese classes are progressing, the tofu recipe that flopped. Sharing your experiences in this way may open up their world.
Use your worldly experience when you respond to children's letters. If your grandchildren wrote about how they fight with each other constantly, share a story about your own experiences with sibling rivalry or any bits of wisdom you feel you have about the matter. They will appreciate hearing advice and concern from someone who is interested but objective. Include jokes, thoughts and personal anecdotes to liven up the letter and to keep the tone friendly.
Close every letter with a note of encouragement and convey caring and appreciation of the children's strengths. Make it clear that you value the children and their opinions and that you enjoy sharing ideas with them. Request that the children write back soon and suggest they include recent drawings or photographs. Mention why you look forward to getting your next letter. For example, "Write back soon. Your letters always make me giggle." If you are related to the children, convey your love by mentioning that you miss them.
Sign and send your letter. Include stamps if you believe doing so will serve as an incentive to the children to respond.