Tots and Teens: Family History For Children

by Maureen A. Taylor | May 5, 2011

Genealogy really is a hobby for the whole family. Gone are the days of it being an adults only pursuit. While there are no statistics on the number of kids involved in learning more about their family, it's clearly a growing segment of genealogy focused hobbyists.

So when is the right time to start discussing the branches on the family tree? Probably as soon as a child asks, "Where do I come from?" and they don't mean the birds and the bees. It's a natural part of the maturation process to ask about family and to be curious about where they fit in the picture. Busy parents may not have the time to talk trees to the littlest twigs in the family, but grandparents or other relatives might love the chance to foster an interest in ancestors. Many genealogists credit grandparents with sparking their interest in genealogy through casual conversation. All it takes is a tidbit, "You know my great grandfather was in the Civil War" or "my grandmother never drove a car or voted in an election." Before you know it, the kid is hooked paving the way to look at their ancestor's role in history.

There are so many ways to involve kids in genealogy it's just a matter of finding an appropriate activity to fit their personality, age and interest.

Story-Telling

First, you don't have to plan an activity. Just start by telling stories. Simple tales of family exploits will thrill any age kid. They don't have to be long involved affairs about lineage. Try talking about the silly things you did when you were their age or hook them with a realistic discussion of prices. Next time they buy a snack ask how much it cost then tell them what it cost in your day. You'll be greeted with gasps and open mouths as they try to calculate how many items they could buy with today's dollars.

Each story you tell can weave together genealogy and local history to create a tapestry of events that captivate the listener in the same way that oral historians from different cultural traditions maintain family history by re-telling it. For instance, when my son was in kindergarten he told the entire class about one ancestor who saved a town in Vermont by killing the wolves that were preying on livestock. He'd heard the story from his grandmother, and then verified the facts with his Dad, who showed him a page from a local history.

It's easy to make story-telling a part of your family routine by asking each member to report on something that happened to them that week while an adult might decide to relate a story from their family history instead. With hectic schedules, this activity doesn't have to happen around the dinner table, it can be part of the ride home from school such as "Have you heard the one about grandpa...?"

  • Keep the stories alive by adding them to your online family tree, media gallery or by recording them using a digital tape recorder or a video camera.
  • Give a child the gift of a person's voice by making a VoiceQuilt for a special occasion. It's a vocal time capsule in a jewelry box.
  • Talking books are a big item this year, but you can make your own family history version using Powerpoint and some photos. Instructions are available online .

Cooking Lessons

Believe it or not an ordinary recipe can transform itself into a family history for children lesson. Everyone has a favorite food, so why not discuss who likes what and come up with reasons why. My mother-in-law has an unwritten rule that Christmas means artichokes (no matter the cost because it's a tradition) while an aunt adored parsnips. As long as my aunt was alive we had parsnips on the table despite the fact that only she ate them.

This year, ask a child to help you collect recipes from relatives, then take a turn in the kitchen making them. You have to test them, right? Many recipes are so old, no one actually remembers the exact measurements, so be sure to ask them what that pinch of an ingredient looks like in real cooking terms. The next step is to interview those family members about those recipes and why they are important. In some families actual cookbooks are passed down through the maternal line. Use these books with their handwritten notations to offer tidbits of family history.

  • Have a teen transcribe the recipes, bits from the interview and a few photos to compile a family cookbook with recipes and a biographical sketch of each contributor. This can be done in any word processing software but if you need a template try searching online for "heirloom cookbooks" for an appropriate website.

Look At Photographs

In this digital age, paper photographs (or those even older) are viewed as mysterious. Ask a child or teen to go through your photo albums. It'll become a treasure hunt. Start with photos of them as babies and they'll take the lead. Even small children are fascinated by pictures. In fact, they are especially good at picking out the small details that can help with picture identification. Older children ask more sophisticated questions not just who is in the picture, but why it was taken. Purchase a couple of inexpensive magnifying glasses to examine the pictures for clues and soft lead pencils for writing identifying information on the back. Even if you lack the time to organize your photographs your children will have fun looking at the images, creating stories, and writing down their discoveries.

  • Enlist kids to help with scanning photos, documents and other family history treasures.
  • Create a family history photo book using any photo sharing site such as Snapfish or create a free Flickr account for your family photos.

Start A Blog, Website Or Other Online Venture

Is your child always full of questions? Do they love to be online but hate history? Have them help you set up a family blog or website. With parental permission let them help you become part of the social networking generation and join Facebook. Genealogists are busy forming connections and sharing family history online in a variety of ways.

Blogs can be free and fun. Google's Blogger is easy enough for a beginner and requires little technical knowledge. Turn that terrific teen into a genealogy team member by asking for their assistance setting up a site and explaining how it works (even if you already know how).

  • Next step is to show them the vast resources of the web-based genealogy by setting up a free family tree on a site like Ancestry.com or a family page on Weebly.

Need a little more help getting children of all ages interested in their past, try looking at Family Tree Magazine's site for kids, parents and teachers, or the National Genealogical Society's comic book to introduce the subject. Family history and kids is all about making inter-generational connections.


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