Teach Kids about Letters and the Mail

One of my favorite places to visit in London was the Postal Museum, which has a brilliant post office-themed play space for young children. Kids find it exhilarating to weigh packages and letters, punch numbers into a cash register, and deliver the post. I had that magnificent play space in mind when I designed these lessons, which focus on geography, history, and critical thinking.

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • Decode a barcode
  • Use their neighborhood map as a maze
  • Analyze postmarks and stamps
  • Start a stamp collection and map it
  • Make a tiny postal route
  • Weigh and send packages from their own play post office
  • Write secret messages and reveal or decode them
  • and more

Designed for preschool and early elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.

Read On

  • The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — The Ahlbergs are masters at writing new books with familiar fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters, and this one is especially fun, since it’s filled with witty little letters concealed in envelopes. It’s exciting to get mail anyway, but intercepting a letter from Goldilocks? The design is thoughtful, intricate, and charming, and kids love pulling out the letters.
  • The Jolly Pocket Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon] — The Jolly Postman books are works of art, with an attention to detail you don’t often see in children’s books. This one is particularly impressive, but unlike the other two books in the series, in this one it’s helpful to have knowledge of stories beyond fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The story here is longer and more complex, and much of it revolves around Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Here’s the premise: The Postman is knocked unconscious when the giant’s baby drops a giant rattle. When he comes to, he follows a rabbit to Wonderland, where he drinks a cup of tea that shrinks him. The adventures that follow are fittingly mind-bending (at one point he climbs through a postage stamp), and near the end Dorothy and Alice ponder, on a super-mini postcard, “Did we dream you — or did you dream us?” The book comes with loads of inserts: a working magnifying glass, a map with a sparkly, textured yellow brick road that you can trace with your finger, a mini book, and a pop-up spider telegram. It’s such a joy to read — a marvel of a book, bursting with charm and wit.

  • The Jolly Christmas Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another terrific Jolly Postman book, this time with a Christmas theme and a series of delightful mini-presents. There’s a board game from Mr. Wolf, a working Humpty Dumpty puzzle from All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men, a tiny magazine with an even tinier insert, and an expanding peep show (or tunnel book) that will astound any child (and probably you, too). A cozy marvel of a book, worth every penny. Plus, if you want to discuss postage and postmarks, this book is great for that, too.
  • The Post Office Book: Mail and How It Moves, Gail Gibbons [Amazon | Bookshop] — Although written way back in 1982, this book is still basically accurate and (for better or worse) pretty basic. You can get a better idea of how the mail moves from the videos below, but if you’d like a book to explain the process, this one does so clearly and quickly.
  • Me on the Map, Joan Sweeney and Qin Leng [Amazon | Bookshop] — A useful book for learning about maps and all the ways in which children can describe where they live (country, state, city, and so on). Great for the youngest readers especially, since it’s very short and clear.
  • Where Do I Live?, Neil Chesanow [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another useful book for learning about maps and where you live, but this one is more in-depth. It’s still appropriate even for preschoolers, but slightly older kids might prefer the more sophisticated treatment of the topic here.

  • What’s the Point of Math?, DK [Amazon | Bookshop] — This brilliantly fun math book is structured as a series of “how to” questions: how to track time, how to measure the Earth, how to keep secrets, how to catch a cheat, how to win a game show, how to escape prison. All of the answers, of course, use math. And it’s packed with history, too, about ancient civilizations, famous mathematicians, and major breakthroughs. I found it compelling enough that I read it cover-to-cover — though I stopped plenty of times to do more research on the bits and pieces I learned in the book. Although much of the book is too complicated for early elementary readers (in fact, some of it is better suited to much older kids and grown-ups), there is still plenty to enjoy here even for them. In the context of mail history, this book is useful for learning about the history of secret codes.
  • Mailing May, Michael O. Tunnell and Ted Rand [Amazon | Bookshop] — For a brief period in 1913, adults could mail children to a destination, sometimes hundreds of miles away. This (almost too folksy) book is based on the true story of Charlotte May Pierstorff, who was mailed for 53 cents from Grangeville to Lewiston, Ohio. It’s a charming thought, to travel as a letter does — mostly! — and May gets a thrilling ride through the mountains on a steam engine, too.
  • Stamp It!: The Ultimate Stamp Collecting Activity Book, Leslie Jonath [Amazon] — A book filled with creative ideas for how to organize your stamp collection. Why not collect stamps from the year you were born? Or display your address in stamps? Or write a story using stamps? Or make a fruit salad with your stamps? There are lots of pages for thematic collecting, too (monarchs, sports, movies, and so on). The book includes a bit of material at the front about stamp collecting and a zip bag at the back to store extra stamps. (You’ll have to get this one used, but, if you’d rather not, you can make up themed stamp pages quite easily yourself.)
  • Magic Mail, Joshua Jay and Michael Lauritano [Amazon | Bookshop] — Magician Joshua Jay’s interactive “magic” mailbox is a spectacular treat. Here’s the idea: he’s traveling around the world, and he’ll be sending your kids postcards and letters from every destination. Put one in the mailbox each day for 30 days, raise the little red flag, and kids can get their very own letters. And the letters are interesting — not just the same old things you read in every trivia book. The set also comes with a map, so kids can check off each location, and some of the postcards have instructions for activities (like decoding a secret message or doing origami). The final postcard is one kids can decorate and mail back to Jay himself. It’s educational, beautifully and thoughtfully designed, and so fun.

  • It Came in the Mail, Ben Clanton [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this fanciful story, Liam writes a letter to his mailbox, asking it to help him get some exciting mail. And since it’s a magic mailbox, he gets his wish — over and over and over again. It turns out Liam doesn’t need quite that much mail, but all the excitement motivates him to send mail to other kids. It’s a light, cute story, and it might help get kids pumped to send off a few letters of their own.
  • Off & Away, Cale Atkinson [Amazon | Bookshop] — Here’s a different sort of mail route for you: delivering messages in a bottle with a little sailboat. When Jo’s dad gets sick, she takes over his route — with a little bit of fear and a lot of bravery — and even ventures into frightening Blackwater Bay (where there’s a good surprise). A lovely story about facing your fears, and it’s beautifully illustrated, too. 
  • Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, Marianne Dubuc [Amazon | Bookshop] — A supremely delightful tale of a mouse mail carrier, delivering packages to all sorts of animals in their homes: a super-long snake house with built-in heat lamps, a penguin tower made out of ice cubes, a bat house with upside-down beds, and a bear house with a rooftop hive and honey collecting system, for instance. While the houses are whimsical, they’re cleverly inspired by real animal traits (a sharp-eyed reader might notice that the fly house is in a still-steaming pile of dung). There are so many delightful details hidden in these drawings that you might still be noticing new things on the tenth time through.

  • The Day the Crayons Quit, Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop] — You likely know this classic: an epistolary picture book about crayons with a few complaints (and requests). It’s a really useful text for examining persuasive letters and their structures — particularly for early elementary students, since the letters are quite simple. But even though the letters aren’t very complex, you can talk about so much here, including the way the illustrations complement the text and whether the crayons are likely satisfied by the solution at the end.
  • The Day the Crayons Came Home, Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this charming sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit, some of Duncan’s lost crayons are desperate to get back home, and they’re telling their stories through postcards. It’s funnier than the original — poor Tan/Burnt Sienna crayon has really had a rough time of it — and a fun text for talking about postcards. It’s particularly fun for kids to examine the postmarks, images, and labels on Neon Red’s postcards to make sense of his epic and very silly journey.
  • Dear Mr. Blueberry, Simon James [Amazon | Bookshop] — Emily claims there’s a whale living in her pond, and she’s hoping her teacher Mr. Blueberry can give her some advice about how to care for it. He never believes her claims, but Emily is undiscouraged. Told entirely through letters, with illustrations that show Emily’s point of view, readers can discuss what really happened.

  • Dragon Post, Emma Yarlett [Amazon | Usborne] — When Alex gets a pet dragon, he has a lot of questions about proper care. So, looking for advice, he writes letters to the fire brigade and the butcher (and others), and he gets some some surprising letters in return. In the tradition of The Jolly Postman series, Yarlett’s book features a series of cleverly designed envelopes, each stuffed with a letter. Alex’s correspondents all have delightfully punny names, and there’s so much to notice with each letter, from the addresses, to the stamps, to the postmarks, to the stationery. A beautifully designed book (and the dragon is printed in a gorgeous neon red that almost seems to glow from the page).
  • The Thank You Letter, Jane Cabrera [Amazon | Bookshop] — After Grace’s birthday party, she begins writing thank you letters for her presents, then thinks… why not write thank you letters about other things, too? So she writes to her parents to thank them for the party, and to her teacher, to her cat, to the sky. Although thank you letters are often regarded as a chore, this book sees them as joyous and focuses on how even small efforts to reach out and sustain relationships can deepen bonds between people.

  • The Night Monster, Sushree Mishra and Sanket Pethkar [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this atmospheric, sensitive book from India, Avi confides to his sister Swati that he’s afraid of the Night Monster. Swati cleverly suggests that he draw the monster and shut the drawing in a box. When that doesn’t work, Swati suggests that he write to the monster, too. And wouldn’t you know it — the Night Monster writes back. As Avi and the Night Monster (or, as it keeps insisting, “Not a Monster!”) correspond, Avi’s fear fades away. Some children might prefer to believe that the Night Monster (rather than Swati) is truly writing to Avi, but no matter how you read it, it’s a lovely exploration of the transformative power of listening, of being open and willing to change your mind. And of how letters can make this happen.
  • Dear Peter Rabbit, Alma Flor Ada and Leslie Tryon [Amazon | Bookshop] — This clever book of letters between fairy tale characters takes place after Goldilocks has wrecked the Three Bears’ home and Peter Rabbit has lost his clothing in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Now, the Three Little Pigs want Peter to come to their housewarming party, but for obvious reasons they keep needing to reschedule. Meanwhile, Goldilocks sees a girl in red talking to a wolf in the woods. Will everyone make it to Goldilocks’s party? The stories blend together beautifully, the letters are absolutely charming, and the end is very sweet. The sequel, Yours Truly, Goldilocks, takes place directly after the events of the first book and is pleasant but not nearly as good as the original.)


  • To purchase inexpensive stamps for a collection, you can try Etsy, at stores like this one and this one. (I’ve used both and was really pleased with the stamps I received.)
  • For fake play stamps, you might try something like this.



Read: Me on the Map, Joan Sweeney and Qin Leng [Amazon | Bookshop] OR
Where Do I Live?, Neil Chesanow [Amazon | Bookshop]

Look: A history of house numbering (for older children and grown-ups, as background)

Activity: Mapping your own house
Make a flip book in the style of Me on the Map to show where you live (street, neighborhood, state, country, continent, planet). You can use a Teachers Pay Teachers flip book file like this one, but it can also easily be done yourself, with paper circles in progressively larger sizes.

Watch: How Streets, Roads, and Avenues Are Different
Activity: Print out a map of your neighborhood and analyze it to see if the streets follow the conventions described in the above video.

Activity: Neighborhood maze
Print out a custom map in Google My Maps and have kids trace their way from one destination to another. You can mark your house and frequent nearby destinations in color and direct kids to “travel” with their markers. (For older kids, they can describe the directions aloud as they go or write them down.) For help with printing from My Maps, you can consult this video guide.

Read: The Jolly Postman, or Other People’s Letters, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] and/or The Jolly Pocket Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon]
Activity: Map fairyland coordinates
In this cute activity from the UK Postal Museum, kids write out coordinates for a variety of characters from The Jolly Pocket Postman. (Whichever Jolly Postman book you have, this still works.) Find the printable worksheet here.

Watch: How Zip Codes Helped Organize America (also about geocodes)
Look: Look up the three word geocode for your house
Activity: Decode a barcode
First, watch the slideshow. These days, US mail uses USPS Intelligent Barcodes, so if you check your own mail, you probably won’t find this type of barcode anymore. But you can still generate your old barcode using a site like this (and it’s good code-cracking practice!). Type in your zip code, select “Postnet,” and it will generate the barcode for you. There will be one extra digit at the end, called the “check digit,” which you can read about here.


Watch: Why Stamps Were Invented
Read: Roland Hill and Postal Reform (UK, but useful for most countries, including the US)
About the Penny Black, the first stamp (a learning resource from the Postal Museum about the first stamp and development of post boxes and mail slots)

Look and discuss: The parts of a stamp
If you like, you can follow this lesson from the Postal Museum. Or you can simply put a few different stamps in front of you and analyze them together.

Look and discuss: How are stamps designed?
If you like, you can follow this lesson from the Postal Museum. And/or:
Watch: Stamp Design
Find more resources on stamp design here.
Look and discuss: Stamps featuring disability
The museum also has a lesson for these stamps, but I think the lesson is poorly done, so I suggest just looking and analyzing.

Activity: Stamp Detectives in The Jolly Postman
You can examine them together, or you can use this worksheet from me.

Watch: Sesame Street — A Girl Visits the Postage Stamp Factory
Watch: Stamp Production

Watch: Stamp Collecting

Activity: Examine some stamps!
It’s helpful to have stamp samples prepared ahead of time, with a variety of subjects: national symbols, US Presidents (following death), figures who have contributed to US history, positive cultural figures and events, and heritage, for example. You can ask kids to sort stamps into groupings, making arguments for how they’re categorized.

Activity: Sort through world stamps to make a collection
If you have an envelope or two of world stamps, you can go through them together and color in all the countries for which you have stamps. I bought cheap and very good sets of stamps from Etsy (here and here). I purchased this labeled world map and had it printed on blueprint paper for about $3 at Office Depot.

Activity: Stamp War
If you have play stamps (or a surplus of used stamps), you can affix them to index cards and play the card game War with them.

Activity: Letter Detectives with The Jolly Postman
You can use these worksheets/question guides from me (for The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman).

Delivering the Mail

Mail Sorting

Optional watch: Why Stamps Were Invented

Watch: The Journey of a Letter (UK)
Systems at Work (USPS video about how its employees sort mail)
How USPS Sorts Mail

Read and watch: From A to B – A Package’s Journey Through the Postal System

Mail Delivery

Read: Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, Marianne Dubuc [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: Early Postal Technology (historical methods of delivery)
Look: Postal vehicles

Watch: Airmail: The Quest for Speed
Pioneering Female Aviator: Katherine Stinson

Read: Off & Away, Cale Atkinson [Amazon | Bookshop]

Look: A lovely slideshow from the UK Postal Museum showing photos of some of the more unusual routes UK posties take.

Look: A slideshow from the UK Postal Museum showing postal uniforms from around the world.

Look:  A slideshow from the UK Postal Museum showing postal employees’ clothing to protect them from a variety of weather.

Sending Children Through the Mail

Read: Mailing May, Michael O. Tunnell and Ted Rand [Amazon | Bookshop]
For more background on how, for a brief time, parents used to be able to send small children through the USPS, you can read this article.

Post Office Games

Activity: Home post office
Particularly if you have preschool children or kids in the lower elementary grades, try setting up a home post office. Here’s a guide from the UK Postal Museum about what you might include (rulers, stamps, and a scale).

I used our handy fort building rods to make the post office and several “homes” to deliver mail to, but I expect tables and boxes will work just as well. We used both felt Velcro stamps and play sticker stamps, as well as felt envelopes we cut and sewed. (If you can sew, this video might help you make the envelopes.) Our food scale was great for weighing mail.

Activity: Mini mail route
An easier alternative! Using a roll of craft paper, draw a postal route and line it with toy houses. Give the streets names and also feel free to give each house an address. Use toy cars or trucks (postal trucks, if you have them!) to deliver the mail.

Postcards and Letters

Activity: Comparing letters in The Jolly Postman
The UK Postal Museum has a small guide for comparing the styles and tones of the letters in The Jolly Postman, though you hardly need it (just pick a couple and compare!).

Read: The Day the Crayons Quit, Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop]
This book is now the standard one for teaching young children about letters. Many of the crayons’ letters are not actually very persuasive, but there’s still plenty to discuss here (especially on the pages for the black and blue crayons). My favorite lesson on this book is this free one. Kids really enjoy making a list of the crayons’ demands and then analyzing whether Duncan’s solution successfully addresses those demands. I made a printable checklist based off the one in that lesson. You can access that here.

Read: The Thank You Letter, Jane Cabrera [Amazon | Bookshop]


Read and discuss: How to Write a Postcard

Read: The Day the Crayons Came Home, Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Write a postcard
Some of my favorite postcard sets for children are these punny ones, these animal facts ones, these super-cute ones, and these blank ones kids can decorate with markers or watercolors.

Watch (extra): World’s First Christmas Card: How Did the Tradition of Sending Christmas Cards Start?

Letters in History

To examine the place of letters in history, I chose to look at the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Japanese American National Museum has excellent resources about this, and I combed through them and selected the ones that use letters and postcards to enrich our understanding of history (as well as other lessons that I thought worked well with elementary school-aged children). You’ll find them below.

Watch: Ugly History: Japanese American Incarceration Camps

Learning about America’s concentration camps through letters:

Letter from Fusa Tsumagari to Miss Breed
Examine a painting of a barbed wire fence
Examine a photo of a Japanese American family from LIFE Magazine
“A Friend Back Home”: letters sent between a friend in the camp and a friend from her home city
“Friends for Life”: a boy who went voluntarily to the camps to express dissent
Examine a letter written to Masako Murakami at the end of her incarceration

Secret Messages

Read: “How to Keep a Secret,” What’s the Point of Math?, DK [Amazon | Bookshop] 78-81

Activity: Write invisible messages and reveal them, part 1
For this method, kids can use white crayon on watercolor paper and then use watercolors to reveal their hidden message or picture. This works pretty well for younger children especially.

Activity: Write invisible messages and reveal them, part 2
For this method, you’ll be using baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and turmeric. The results are spectacular (but wear a smock and cover the work surface). Full instructions here.

For more secret message recipes, have a look at this list from the Spy Museum.

Activity (optional, for older children): Crack a code by analyzing letter frequency
You can use this worksheet from the Spy Museum. (A great activity, but children will find it hard to crack this code if they don’t know Washington, D.C. landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial.)

Activity: Make a cipher wheel
Using a cipher wheel, write a secret message and have someone decode it. You can find a printable cipher wheel from the Spy Museum here.

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