Let’s Play: Drawing Pen Pals

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

More Free Drawing

My 74 year-old mother, who lives in Michigan, went through a very long hospital stay because of a hip replacement gone awry. She is too active to be confined for 3 months. My daughter and I thought about what we could do to keep grandma upbeat during her spring spent indoors. She came up with a brilliant idea one morning during breakfast while looking at a painting my mom made in high school. It hangs near the table. She zoomed off to her room and came back with a small blank notebook and a pencil. She started drawing and asked if I could mail it off to grandma with an envelope and postage for grandma to return it to us. Drawing pen pals. This started a very interesting exchange of images. I have just been the delivery person making post office runs until last week when the little purple notebook arrived once again from Michigan. For the first time in months, I looked inside. They have quite a visual conversation going. My mom draws what she see from her favorite chair or just doodles. It was fun to see that she still traces coins to get perfect circles. She did this when I was little. She still uses the v shape for birds flying in the distance. She draws things that she sees. She observes. My daughter just draws. A bit of everything and anything. Partial jokes coming from mustaches. Love for grandma. Her ant farm. Characters she imagines. I am more than happy to be the post office messenger for this drawing conversation going on between downtown Northampton and rural Michigan…

Now that my mom is back driving and into her regular routine of exercise classes and senior socializing, the notebook does not go back and forth as frequently. This makes it more of a surprise when it arrives in our box.

There is a similar idea in The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art and Creativity by Jean Van’T Hul. In her book, Jean describes a child starting a drawing and then writing a message to grandma asking her to finish the picture and send it back. A great way to promote free draw and conversation with family.


  • a blank notebook
  • a pencil or ink pen
  • envelopes for mailing


As I am typing on the family computer, I have become the target of play for my 8 year old and a friend she has had since preK. They have me tied to the chair with those waxy string pieces kids use for mini sculpture (I do not recommend these for serious offenders. They are very weak ropes.). I am told if I move a poison spray will automatically cover me. I asked my crime. Apparently I was running through Northampton being a meanie. This is what can come about when second graders have time to just play. They did bring me coffee from the kitchen. They are nice prison guards. It is fun to be a part of spontaneous free play on a lazy Saturday morning.


Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

One Comment on “Let’s Play: Drawing Pen Pals

  1. Some great ideas! Such a lovely way to get the family communicating in an interesting and altogether memorable way!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: