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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Chrysta Naron

You know Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen. But do you recall the newest Christmas character of all? I mean, of course, the Elf on the Shelf. This little magical Christmas elf has found its way into millions of American homes and sparked a modern-day Christmas tradition. 

The concept behind the Elf on the Shelf is simple. It’s a small toy elf that arrives at your home a few weeks before Christmas to watch the children of the house and see who’s being naughty or nice. Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa, then flies right back to its adopted home. Families name their elves, love their elves, and design elaborate outfits and scenarios for their elves to show up in each morning. 

It can be great fun and stir up the feeling of magic so often associated with Christmas. However, it can also create a hole. Because the elf is purportedly there to report on kids’ behavior, and that behavior leads to getting gifts, a child’s relationship with the elf can tilt away from Christmas values such as charity, togetherness, and love. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, you can make your elf a tool for social-emotional learning, family bonding, and literacy! Just turn your elf into a Christmas pen pal for your kids. 

How and Why to Start an Elf on the Shelf Pen Pal Tradition

Kick off the season by having your elf show up with a note addressed to your child(ren) on the first morning it appears. The elf should initiate the pen pal relationship and request a reply.

Later in this article, we’ll share some more tips on what to write. But first, let’s look at why this activity is so valuable.

1. It fosters social-emotional learning.

Children watch how the adults around them act and react. If, at Christmas, the adults are consumed with buying and wrapping presents, children think that gifts are the sole point of the holiday. Commercialism and “me” thinking will become its cornerstone for them. 

Developing a pen pal Elf on the Shelf activity opens up the opportunity for your children to grow their social-emotional skills, instead. Unlike Santa letters, which are primarily centered around what they can get, these letters are focused on connection, empathy, and communication. That’s why this simple Elf on the Shelf idea is so revolutionary.

When writing these letters, steer your child to ask questions about the elf. Where are they from? What is it like being an elf? Do they go to school? And so on. Then, when you write as the elf, include questions that allow children to reflect on themselves. Beyond just questions about how their day was or their favorite color, you can ask about their feelings, hopes, or dreams. Talk to one another about traditions or values your family shares, either through your letters or directly as you sit together to write to your elf. 

By making these moments with your child about others as well as themselves, you will help foster their social-emotional development.

2. It facilitates family bonding.

Writing letters with your Elf on the Shelf is a sweet way to strengthen family bonds. Letter writing allows you more festive time together that’s outside of gifting and receiving. It also allows you insight into how your child thinks and other aspects of their personality they may have trouble communicating verbally. 

If there are older children who don’t believe in Santa, you might invite them to help you write the letters “from the elf” to their younger sibling. This way, they’re still included in the family activity and are able to feel that they’re creating a magical Christmas for their sibling. It’s all about making this Elf on the Shelf activity something for the whole family!

3. It develops your child’s literacy.

By writing letters to your elf, your child will be able to practice the art of correspondence, as well as building their awareness of writing skills. Whether you write their letter for them or they write it themselves, they’ll be developing their knowledge of how writing conveys speech. 

For kids old enough to transcribe their own letter, they’ll be practicing important skills from handwriting to spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. They’ll also learn how to translate their thoughts to a page. When children tell stories verbally, they can get repetitive (“and then, and then, and then, and then, he, um … and then”). Writing allows them to slow down and clarify their thought process, to think about the words they choose and want to share with others. 

And reading your elf’s notes will add one more opportunity for kids to develop their reading and comprehension skills, whether they read the letters on their own or you read them aloud. Your child will be looking for answers to the questions they asked their elf, and eager to see what questions their elf has for them. Especially since the elf is going to share a magical world with them that they can’t see. This attentiveness fuels your child’s comprehension.

Tips for Your Elf on the Shelf Pen Pal Activity

  • Hand-write the letter clearly, or type and print it out, making sure it’s clear it’s from the elf. If your child isn’t reading yet, point out the letters and words as you read the note aloud to them. Show them what words you’re reading and point out some of the letters that key words start with (such as their name or “elf”). For beginning readers, encourage them to read the letter on their own.
  • Write in words and sentences that are on your child’s comprehension or reading level. It’s okay to give challenging words, but overall, make it as accessible to them as possible.
  • Whatever your child’s level, support them in writing back to the elf themselves. They can dictate their letter and then you hold their hand and guide them to write their names, or they can write some or all of the words as you tell them which letters form the words they want, or they can take the lead. Find the level that’s right for your child. 
  • In the letters “from the elf,” ask specific questions to prompt your child to write a response.
  • When writing back to your child, make sure to respond to any and all questions they asked the elf.
  • Help your child write their responses to the elf by making it a special time of day. 
  • Keep it fun! Encourage this as a fun Christmas activity rather than homework or a task that must be accomplished.

Christmas can become a hectic time that’s filled with endless to-do lists, parties, and presents. By carving out the time to form this new tradition with your family, you’ll be demonstrating for your child what really matters at this time of year—relationships. 

What will your elf write about? What other Elf on the Shelf ideas do you have to foster true Christmas spirit?

Chrysta Naron (she/her) is an early childhood educator, curriculum specialist, and the founder of the education nonprofit Read the Room. She believes everything is better with glitter! Read more from her at playfulprek.com.