Abu Dhabi mum launches UAE Pen Pals for homebound children

Asha Sherwood says the exercise can expand a child’s vocabulary and world view

Poppy Sherwood wrote her first letter through the UAE Pen Pals initiative launched by her mum
Powered by automated translation

Pen pals came up in the course of a casual conversation Asha Sherwood was having with her young daughter Poppy. The Abu Dhabi pupil had never heard of the concept, and in her seven years had never written a letter.

“We have been social distancing for about two weeks now, which coincided with the early spring break. So far, we’ve cleaned, cooked, done a bit of art and a lot of improvisation,” Sherwood says with a laugh.

“Then one day Poppy asked me what I would do when stuck in the house as a child, and I told her about being paired with and writing letters to a pen pal in another city or country, to learn more about them, their environment and their culture. She was astounded, especially by the fact that letters could take weeks to be delivered.”

Upon seeing her daughter's reaction, Sherwood – who is the founder of Abu Dhabi Review – put Poppy in touch with the daughter of a friend who was also looking for ways to engage her youngster. Instead of a voice message or video game, however, she asked Poppy to write the other child a letter, thus setting the foundation for the UAE Pen Pals initiative.

How it works

Sherwood’s concept combines physical writing with digital delivery, in that, once Poppy penned her words, Sherwood sent it via WhatsApp to the other girl’s mother, who printed it out. The reply, too, was received in this manner. Parents can also click or scan, then send their children’s written letters to each other by email.

“Not all seven-year-olds necessarily have their own digital communication methods and, in this day and age, I wanted to be absolutely sure that parents are always in the loop and involved at every stage for content monitoring and so on. This way, if the letter is sent through Mum and Dad’s digital platforms, they have their eye on what’s being exchanged, at least for younger children,” Sherwood says.

The pros of writing by hand

Poppy found the act of writing made her think more about what it was she wanted to say and ask. “It was also nice to see her anticipation upon sending the letter as to what responses she would get to her questions, and her excitement when she received one addressed to her the next day,” Sherwood says.

“Letter writing can also help improve a child’s handwriting and spelling,” she says. “The child Poppy writes to is a bit older, and she used the word ‘diversity’ in her letter. Immediately, Poppy asked me what it meant, thus building her vocabulary further. In this way, a pen pal can help your child learn something new about a different culture or concept, as well as improving their language skills.”

Letter writing can improve a child's handwriting and spelling 
Letter writing can improve a child's handwriting and spelling 

Another advantage of letter-writing is the break it affords children from screens. “Now that distance learning has started, children are spending three to five hours in front of a screen anyway, after which they may watch a bit of TV or be on their iPads when on their break. As parents, we have to ask how much screen time we want to expose them to,” Sherwood says.

“Writing a letter to a pen pal is a lovely way to get them away from the screen and connect them with somebody in the outside world. They share thoughts, exchange information and learn things without even realising it, and without the need to turn to Google. It opens their mind and is a wonderful opportunity for friendships to blossom,” says Sherwood, whose own pen pal was a girl from France who signed up for the school-led initiative to improve her English. A nephew of hers, meanwhile, kept in touch with his pen pal from Japan well into adulthood, with the two regularly taking trips together.

“What I started as an activity for a bored child is something I’m seeing real value in from a learning point of view,” Sherwood says.

Parents can find pen pals for their children within their school communities, compounds and friendship circles, or they can turn to Abu Dhabi Review, which will put them in touch with other parents interested in the exercise.