Schoolchildren revive the penpal tradition

For centuries they were the favoured form of communication – hand-written missives from thank you notes to love letters or a long, newsy dispatch to friends and family.

Then the rise of the internet and mobile phones effectively killed off the art of letter-writing, with electronic messages increasingly replacing old-fashioned pen and paper.

But a 21st century initiative among Scots schoolchildren is currently reviving the penpal tradition – with a twist. The youngsters of Kippen Primary School in Stirlingshire are now letter-writing friends with a group of older people from Contact the Elderly.

Schoolchildren revive the penpal tradition
Reading letters Kippen Primary pupils L-R Angus Anderson, Marnie Stewart, Calum Beeley, Gregor O’May

The charity, which aims to ease loneliness among the older generation through regular afternoon tea parties, has been actively encouraging young people to get involved in its work through its Future of Volunteering initiative.

The inspiration for the penpal project came after the charity’s Executive Officer Morna O’May, saw a volunteer’s young daughter make and deliver Christmas cards to some guests. She realised the potential for greater inter-generational co-operation and approached Kippen Primary.

Both pupils and staff reacted enthusiastically and the project is now in full swing in the P6/7 class, fitting deftly into the curriculum.

Schoolchildren revive the penpal tradition
Reading their letters Kippen Primary pupils Cody MacPhee, Lily Bell, Aimee Johnston

Class teacher Mrs Vicki Stone said:

“This is a vitally important project for all involved. It develops the children’s letter writing skills but also links them with a person they might otherwise not have had the pleasure of knowing. We hope that the class letters bring pleasure to our pen pals, there is always excitement when we receive another letter.”

The pupils’ first topic of the year was World War II and their new penpals were a huge help to their research, happily sharing their personal memories of the conflict and giving the youngsters a better understanding of their community’s history.

The children say it has also given them a greater appreciation of their elders and their knowledge – as well as their funny stories.

They were pleased the project had fostered a better connection with the older generation. They agreed: ‘It feels good to bring a little bit of happiness into someone else’s life, however small.’

Schoolchildren revive the penpal tradition
Thumbs up for the Kippen Primary penpal project from Gregor O’May and Callum Beeley

As for the recipients, one Contact the Elderly guest summed it up:

“It’s so lovely to receive the letters from our penpals, it is interesting to hear what they are doing at school. I didn’t think they would be very interested in anything I had to say but they have been full of questions for me, some of them quite funny”

Currently, the project only involves the P6/7 class but other Kippen Primary staff and pupils could become involved in a school tea party planned for their new penpals.

Contact the Elderly is also aiming to roll out the penpal initiative to other schools in Scotland, potentially getting schools across the country on board.

The project was funded through the Stirling Soup initiative and has already been highly commended in two categories of the Generations Working Together Awards – Innovation and Reducing Isolation and Loneliness.

Morna O’May said:

“It’s been such a huge success and is giving so much pleasure to both ends of the generational spectrum. It would be fantastic to get more schools involved.

“The power of a personally-written letter just can’t be underestimated and in this digital age it’s a real joy to see the youngsters reviving this dying art so enthusiastically.”

For anyone considering following their lead the Kippen Primary children have some useful advice:

“Writing might not be your favourite thing, but think about how happy your penpal will be when they receive your letter,” says Lily Bell, 11.

“Don’t worry if you aren’t the best letter writer,” counsels Robert Weir, also 11, “They’ll just love to hear from you.”

Schoolchildren revive the penpal tradition

To find out more about becoming a volunteer or guest of Contact the Elderly in Scotland, please contact morna.o’ or 01786 871264 or visit