The Value of Letter Writing

Melissa Erickson
This article appears in Summer Camp Guide 2020

No matter how traditional or 21st century, all summer camps have one thing in common: letter writing. Letters from camp or letters from home can be a powerful form of communication and become treasured keepsakes.

Even though putting pen to paper may seem an antiquated effort that both kids and adults find challenging, the act of composing and sending a message helps kids learn real life lessons, said Dr. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist, educator and author of “The Summer Camp Handbook.”

“Letter writing is asynchronous, meaning the communication is not happening in real time,” Thurber said. “It’s not a phone call or a text message. It forces you to wait. It helps kids develop patience, but it’s also an opportunity for younger people to bolster their coping skills.”

A child may feel homesick or unhappy while at camp, but that distress has a silver lining, Thurber said: “It’s a reflection of the closeness we feel.” When a person feels distressed they are motivated to change something, but if a letter writer is waiting for a reply they are motivated to cope with the situation.

“If you’re allowed to call home, that instant gratification eliminates distress from the equation but a child is also not allowed to learn how to cope with a situation,” Thurber said.

While waiting for a parent’s reply campers have the experience of turning to others, such as a camp counselor or cabinmate for support, which is a positive coping skill.

Another benefit of letter writing is that it allows people to gain an understanding of what they’re feeling.

“There’s no delete key. Even little kids are more thoughtful writing a handwritten letter,” Thurber said. “When we reflect we understand. When we understand we cope better. When we cope better we do better.”

Letter writing is a skill, and parents may wonder how they will get a letter from a child more used to texting than talking.

To start, put together a basic stationary kit using a zip-top plastic bag. Include plenty of paper, pens or pencils, and stamped and addressed envelopes, Thurber said. Use the peel-and-stick kind because kids may dislike the taste of envelope glue.

“Before camp give them some practice. You can start with an index card. Over breakfast, write a note they can respond to. It can be short, one line. Then, have them flip the card over and write a note back,” Thurber said.

For the most part it doesn’t really matter what’s in the letter, but it’s the act of keeping in touch.

“Be encouraging. Tell them it’s going to be a fun way to communicate,” Thurber said.

Ask the camp how long it typically takes mail to be sorted and delivered so a child knows what to expect, Thurber said. Explain how letters cross in the mail.

Ask kids to share the news of camp and what they’re doing.

“The point is to keep each other posted about what’s going on. The best letters are newsy updates,” Thurber said.

Avoid guilt trips or sad stories, such writing that the dog misses the camper.

“Don’t give kids a reason to miss you more,” Thurber said.

Include items your child will enjoy, such as clippings or printouts from the newspaper or magazines.

If sending a care package, avoid food (which many camps won’t accept) and send a book that can be donated to the camp’s library, a board game or something cabinmates can do together.

If a camp offers an email service, skip it.

“Letter writing is a true away-from-home experience. Email is not as good as a handwritten letter where you can see their penmanship. Summer camp nurtures a child’s independence, but that doesn’t mean you’re severing the connection from home,” Thurber said.