3 September 2021

Intergenerational pen pal program the 'write' stuff to connect young and old

| Jeremy Jones
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Students write in class

Students prepare their letters for their new older friends. Photo: Ainslie School.

Old fashioned letter writing is connecting the young and old in our Canberra community.

The Intergenerational Pen Pal Program, between Ainslie School and Northside Community Centre, links students from the primary school with older Canberrans as pen pals.

“It’s a simple, elegant, straightforward program involving children writing to older friends, and the friends writing back so that we’re building community,” Ainslie School principal Ms Wendy Cave says.

“A major priority is for students to compose texts with meaning and impact. Letter writing is one way for students to get direct and meaningful feedback and develop important lifelong learning skills.”

The connection between older and younger people is the key driver for the program, says program coordinator for the project from Northside Community Centre, Clinton Beale.

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“One of the reasons was to remind younger people of the valuable contribution of older members in our community. The students are very young and this program shapes their perception of older people as people with wisdom.”

The teacher in charge of the project, Hayley Grant, agrees.

“Children are a bit disconnected from adults these days,” she says.

“Some children in Canberra don’t have grandparents living here so they don’t really connect with older people.”

Program participants with letters

Ainslie school student Aiden with his letter ready to be delivered by Northside Community Centre program coordinator Clinton Beale. Photo: Ainslie School.

Ms Macleod says learning new ways to communicate is also important.

“We want to show children ways of communicating beyond a device,” she says.

“We explain the craft of addressing an envelope. It is also wonderful to see the 75-year-old or 80-year-old pen pals saying, ‘I should look up Minecraft on the computer’. And it is thought-provoking to learn to craft a conversation with someone you haven’t met but you’re getting to know.”

Penny is a participant in the program and received a letter from the primary school students.

“I’ve had to put my head into being a seven-year-old and a six-year-old,” she says.

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Mr Beale highlights the benefits for older participants.

“A lot of older people feel socially isolated,” he said. “There are huge mental health benefits which lead to health benefits.”

An exciting aspect of the program is when the students receive their letters.

“It’s like a little gift,” Ms Cave says. “We sometimes think of gifts as something bought but this is the gift of connection and relationship.

“Children pour their heart and soul into creating a beautiful text in ways that they might not do for somebody they know particularly well. It is moving to hear that a simple letter from a small child to a stranger can make that person say ‘it was the highlight for me’.”

Box with letters and textures.

The packages ready to be sent from the Ainslie School to older pen pals. Photo: Supplied.

Year two Ainslie Student Indi also agrees.

“It is special to receive a letter written just for me,” she said. “We feel happy when we get each other’s letters to read and see different handwriting. Auntie J’s is very fancy.”

The pen pal relationships continue beyond the letters. In the pilot group the school ran last year, children invited their pen pals to events such as Adults’ Day celebration, where they had a picnic lunch. An intergenerational book club has also spun off from the pen pals’ program.

Ms Macleod highlights the efforts of volunteers who drop off the letters.

“It connects us to other people, so it is a project that just keeps on giving,” she says.

The program has tackled a number of logistical obstacles, and the next is moving online due to lockdown.

“This is a massive barrier for a lot of our participants because they don’t have the computer literacy to flick an email,” says Mr Beale.

“It detracts from one of the benefits of the program which is that people have a letter to keep. A letter is a memory trigger for people with dementia. But on the other hand, we can use technology wisely. I’ve been phoning some of the participants and they dictate their letter for me to email to their pen pal.

“It shows the challenges and the barriers people face in a digital world when they can’t access technology. But it can be an avenue to stay connected during a time of isolation.”

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