Animal pen-pal program is helping kids deal with pandemic issues

Dr. Jessica Pfeiffer started the Barn Buddies program between kids and animals to help young students develop social-emotional skills.

ARVADA, Colo. — At The Community Farm in Arvada, kids write letters to pigs, goats and alpacas, and the animals “write back” – with some assistance.

“I’m not the animal. I am the interpreter. They whisper in my ear. I listen and I write it down, and I send it back,” said social worker Natalie Hittmeier, with a smile.

Hittmeier assists with Barn Buddies, a pen-pal program that helps students in first through fifth grade with social-emotional skills.

The pandemic took classrooms away from kids and had an impact on how younger students interacted with others, said Dr. Jessica Pfeiffer.

“When COVID hit, there were so many changes moving to remote learning,” said Pfeiffer, founder of Intricate Roots. “Hey, I miss being by my friends. I miss routines.”

Pfeiffer’s company works with school districts to look at learning through a neurobiological lens as well as an academic one. As classrooms opened back up, Pfeiffer said she saw there was a need.

“Realizing and hearing the stories of teachers feeling kind of helpless, not sure what to do with the kids, we created Barn Buddies, which is a pen pal program that students get to write to the animals about life and the animals read the letters and write back,” Pfeiffer said.

Hittmeier and Pfeiffer want the kids to be able to write about anything without worrying about being judged. “No one’s trying to fool the kids,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s for us, coming from the social-emotional perspective, how are we able to create this safe space so that the kids can communicate about everything that they’re feeling?” The letters challenge the kids to think about their interactions with each other, Hittmeier said. “The animal will bring up an issue that they’re having with one of their friends,” she said. “Say one of their friends is being mean to them and they don’t know what to do, and so they’ll ask the kids for help and guidance on what to do in those situations.”
Chloe James is a first-grader who is happy to offer advice to her animal friends on the farm.
Chloe James is a first-grader who was happy to offer advice to her friends on the farm. “They wanted to know questions about like how they could interact with their feelings,” Chloe said. After spending a year writing letters, Chloe and her classmates got the chance to meet their pen pals face-to-face at nonprofit The Community Farm.

“More than ever right now, we need avenues for our students to connect, not just with humans, but with animals,” Pfeiffer said.

She said the farm visit teaches children about non-threatening behavior when interacting with the animals.

“I think they can be a little nervous sometimes when they haven’t met people that are around them,” Chloe said.

Pfeiffer said kids can learn a lot from their friends on the farm.

“I think there’s something very wholistic about being in a relationship with an animal,” Pfeiffer said.