Connecting Children With Their Past

by Jennifer Holik | Mar 15, 2012

Jennifer Holik

Genealogy is an engaging hobby for adults. For many, growing older presents the "need" to know about family. The past suddenly becomes important. Engaging children in genealogy, however, requires a creative way to introduce the topic and keep their attention since children do not have this "need" to know. Present children with the basics of research. Tell them a story. Give them a mystery to solve. Give them a project to complete. All of these things will capture their attention, help them stay focused, and show them they can have fun while they are connecting with their past!

Getting Started

Start with what you know and build from there. You will need a three-ring binder, a hole punch, ruled notebook paper, and a pen.

First, print a family tree, also known as a pedigree chart. The child should write his name in space number one. He should then fill in his vital information. Help the child complete the rest of the chart, adding parents and grandparents. Continue on a second page if you can take your ancestral lines back farther than four generations. Insert the pedigree charts into your binder.

Print family group sheets. PBS's Ancestor's website has a two-page family group sheet. Print page one and page two. Make enough copies for each family on your family tree. Help the child complete a full family group sheet for each family. He should include as much information as is known. It is ok if you do not know the answers to all the questions. Insert the family group sheets into your binder.

Look For Home Sources

Home sources are documents, heirlooms, photographs, and other things that contain family history information. Let's examine some documents first. Birth, marriage and death records may provide a child with names as well as dates and places of important events in their ancestor's life. Military records provide a glimpse into the life of a sailor or soldier. Family Bibles present more names, dates, and places for family members. You may even have stories about how the Bible was handed down through the generations.

Heirlooms are objects passed down through the generations. These are home sources that likely will not have facts written on them. Examples of heirlooms include your great grandfather's watch, a program from the World's Columbian Exposition, and a quilt your grandmother made. Each item may have a story behind it. Tell your child the story and have him write it down. With stories come facts. Determining if some or all the facts are true requires research. Be careful about taking a story as truth until you have obtained more information.

When they exist, old photographs can provide a lot of information. This is especially true if a photograph has identifying information on the back, front, or in the album from which it came. In cases where no identifying information is on a photograph, compare it to others in your collection. Perhaps the individuals are identified in another photograph. Take note of the surroundings, background objects, and other people in the photograph. Those details may help you date and place the unidentified people.

Home sources provide research possibilities. Photographs and documents may describe what life was like for your ancestor. Perhaps your ancestor even wrote a story or kept a diary which you can read in her own hand.

Conduct Interviews

Compile a list of interview questions on your notebook paper in your binder. Make a list of family members to interview. Need more question ideas? Check your local library for The Oral History Workshop by Cynthia Hart and Lisa Samson and To Our Children's Children by Bob Greene. Both books contain numerous chapters of questions broken into categories such as Early Life, Education, Sports, Romance, Hobbies, Occupations, Entertainment, Health, Politics and History, and Military.

Many skills are built when a child conducts an interview. Not only will he gain valuable family history information but he will also practice listening, note taking, interviewing, and writing. If you have a video camera or tape recorder, consider using it to record the interview. Taping the interview allows you to listen to it again and again to gather more information.

Create a list of questions and conduct the interview. After the interview, your child can write a story. He should write about the person and the stories he heard. The interview and story can be inserted behind the family group sheet on which the interviewee appears.

Discuss Historical Context

"Genealogy and history (religious, economic, social, and political) cannot be separated. Men cannot be dissociated from the times and places in which they lived and still be understood. It is impossible to recognize the full extent of research possibilities if you are not aware of the historical background from which your ancestors came." (Greenwood, Val D., The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy 2nd Edition (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1990), 11.)

Talk to your child about his ancestors and look at them in historical context. This means to look at them through the eyes of someone living at that time and asking questions like who, what, when, and where. It might seem unbelievable that your child's great, great grandmother did not have electricity until she was an adult. Explaining how and when electricity was introduced in the area in which the ancestor lived helps place her in historical context. Placing the ancestor in historical context opens up a wide variety of records that may have been created only during her lifetime.

Discuss Social History

When your child understands the concept of historical context, discuss the idea of social history. Social history studies the lives of ordinary people and focuses on the why and how of history and people's lives.

Have the child pick one of his ancestors. Maybe it is a great, great grandparent who lived around the turn of the century. Gather information about the place in which the ancestor lived during that time by reading local history books and articles. Look at how the ancestor lived and what his daily life may have been like through work and everyday living. Try to imagine life as that ancestor. Discuss with your child how different life is today as compared to then.

Tell A Story

I told my son about his great, great grandfather John Holik. John immigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia and almost all of his siblings followed him to Chicago. His sister Katerina arrived on the same ship as her future husband, John Koluvek. They are listed within a page of each other on the passenger manifest. John and Katerina came from villages a short distance from each other in Bohemia and lived within a few blocks of each other when they came to Chicago. Children with ancestors who came in through Ellis Island can search manifests on Ellis Island's website.

Solve A Mystery

My son thought Katerina and John's story was interesting. He wanted to solve the mystery of how they met. I gave him the facts based on the information I had, and he developed a few theories. One, they met in the dining room on the ship. Two, they met at Ellis Island. Three, they knew each other in Bohemia. And four, they met in Chicago. This is a mystery that will likely never be solved unless we can track down a descendant who heard the story of their meeting. But their story engaged my son in his family history.

Complete A Project

Design a scrapbook with your child. Provide your child with copies of pictures of ancestors, a scrapbook, adhesive, scissors, a pen, and some paper, stickers or other decorations.

Talk about how the book should be laid out. Do you want to start the book with a family tree or jump right into the people? Talk about what you should write on each page with the family pictures. Will you just write down the vital information or include stories? There is no wrong way to build a scrapbook.


Present children with a wide variety of facts and activities to help them gain interest in connecting to their past. Teach them the basics of research; tell them a story; give them a mystery to solve; and work through a project together. Working on family history together will keep a child's interest for a longer period of time. Regardless of what activities you do with your child to teach family history, make it fun. The more fun it is, the more likely the child will want to know more about his roots.

Additional Resources

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