Huron County Nature Center Taps the Power of the Pen

Caitlin Stone-Webber, Naturalist
Huron County Nature Center — Huron County, MI


Note: this is part of a series on how ANCA members are responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

As with many other organizations, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sent us scrambling. Scrambling to re-define who we were and how we could help. The first day our kids in Michigan were home, I sat at my computer for a long time trying to come up with the most impactful way to help kids. How could we encourage learning within their home? How could we help them adjust? How do we help them smile in a time that’s confusing and scary? 

Mail. Not email, not social media messages, but rather real mail delivered to their door. We put it out on Facebook. A simple post outlining a simple project. Kids write to me, the naturalist, about anything. They could think big or small, ask one question or many. 

This project was meant to be small, a few letters that I would respond to by hand. We never expected the response we have gotten. That Facebook post alone has reached over 30,000 people in the weeks it has been up. I have just over 75 pen pals to-date, with letters coming from as far away as South Carolina and Oklahoma.

Sample PenPal LetterThe letters have blown me away. I have two things that I absolutely love about being a naturalist at our Nature Center:

  • The first being the questions I receive from kids. The questions we have gotten in our letters have been no exception. Big concepts from kids of all ages. It’s not just acceptable that honey comes from honey bees, but rather how do they make it? They don’t stop at a giraffe’s tongue is purple, they want to know why it is. They want to know if animals laugh or if they get sad and as scared as we do. They ask how they can help our planet with gardening or recycling at home. Every letter has been challenging and thoughtful. 
  • The second part I love is learning myself. Each letter I’ve received has taught me something. Things from worms to outer space. Their questions have been a teaching tool greater than any class I’ve ever taken. No matter how confident I am in the answer, I never respond to a letter without researching it first. This project has been as impactful to me as I’m hoping it is for our kids.

I’ve been told by parents that the letters have been instilling so much more at home. One little girl needed to be taught what a letter even was. It’s been more than just their questions. They have been practicing good penmanship. They have been working on how to articulate their thoughts into the written word and format a real letter. Even bigger than that, they have been learning how the United State Postal Service works. They are forming new appreciations to so many facets of their world. 

Our hope is that this project carries on long after COVID-19. Our intentions are to not only continue to promote it online, but to bring it into our Center as well. I plan to add a small area for writing letters in our interpretive center. We will have paper available for kids to leave their questions along with their mailing address, and a small “mailbox” for them to drop them into. I will write letters as long as our children are asking questions.

Our pen pal project has grown far beyond our expectations. My hope is to continue to build on this project; the anticipation, the opportunity for learning, and continued connections to nature through the written word.


Huron County Nature Center's letters


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