Teaching Genealogy: Helping Children Connect with Their Family History

By on Monday, May 4th, 2015 in Slider.


It is common for people to want to know about their family history and where they came from and children are no different.  Not only does learning about family history allow children and parents to spend quality time together, having a sense of this history strengthens kids’ sense of family and helps them feel connected with previous generations.  Genealogy and family history also relate to the history of a person’s geographical location, be it a city, state, or country, providing an opportunity to better understand cultural history.

In order to help children engage in genealogy and learn about their family, there are two primary things parents can do with them.  The first of these is to choose age-appropriate activities that children will love and the second is creating a family tree together.  Sharing in this process will not only help you bond more deeply with your children; it will help them bond with family members that have long since left this earth.  But first, let’s take a look at why genealogy and a sense of family history are so important for children.

The Importance of Family History

Having knowledge of family history helps children develop their identity.  However, ensuring children have knowledge of their family history is more beneficial than establishing a sense of who they are and where them come from.  According to an article by Bruce Feiler published in the New York Times in 2013, a strong family narrative, knowing a lot about one’s family, helps people cope better with stress, simply because those who have a close connection with family feel a part of the larger family group and they draw on that strength and identity.

For this reason, it is important to share with children everything you can about your family.  That includes telling them about current family members and about their ancestors, the ones that came before and form the branches of the family tree way back in time.  Genealogy is a fabulous way to help kids connect with their family history and find a sense of pride and belonging to a larger family unit.  Plus, it’s just plain fun to find out who your ancestors were and how they lived.

Activities to Share with Children

Children are naturally inclined to learn about everything around them, including their family.  It is easy for them to learn about their immediate family members, the people they see on a regular basis, but what about the family members they don’t often see or the ones that have passed away?  Activities are always a great way to engage children in learning about their family history, helping them connect with family members past and present.  Here are a few family history activities parents can do with their kids:


Teaching Genealogy: Helping Children Connect with Their Family HistoryChildren, especially younger children, absolutely love stories.  Storytelling is the perfect opportunity to share family history with your children and allow them to get to know their ancestors.  Perhaps you had a great-great-great grandfather that was a knight to the royal family.  Maybe your grandparents moved to America from across the Atlantic to start a new life and there were many ups and downs along the way.

These types of experiences can be made into creative stories that your children will love.  You can even save it until the end of the story, when they are in awe of the characters in it, to tell them these characters are actually their family members and the stories really happened.  This will certainly help them connect with their family history.

Talking to Family Members

Another way to help kids, particularly older kids, learn their family history is to get out there and talk to those members of the family that are still living.  Make a day of it if your family members live close by or take a trip to visit family members that live further away.  If you can’t go and visit the family members you want to talk to, technology makes it possible to connect with them via the internet.  You can hold a video call of Skype and still see great aunt Tessa and ask questions.  Examples of questions kids can ask include:

  • Where were you born?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What were your parents/siblings like?
  • Did you have chores to do?
  • What were your friends like?
  • What did you do for fun?

Your child can keep a journal in which they can record the conversations they have had with each family member and later they can use this information to create a family tree or write stories about their family.

Prepare Special Meals

Everyone loves food and you can easily bring food into your family history experience.  Have a family history day or even dedicate one meal a month to your family’s history.  Perhaps you can make a meal from the country your ancestors came from or you can make one of the recipes your grandmother was famous for, such as her chicken soup or chocolate cake.  Get the kids to help make the food and enjoy!

Take a Family History Field Trip

If you are able, take a trip that will allow you to visit a place that is part of your family history.  This can be across town or across the country, depending on your particular family history and your budget (in terms of finances and time).  Perhaps a cultural festival would help you connect with your ancestors.  If you can afford it, you can even travel to the country of your ancestors, whether that is Italy, Ireland, Germany, Mexico, or somewhere else.

Make a Collage or Scrapbook of Family Photos and Mementos

Family photos are a great way to connect with family past and present.  Children have the opportunity to see clothing and hair styles from the past and see what their family members actually looked like.  They might see family resemblances and ask questions.  You can even create a story to go with each photo, or instead of a collage, you can create a family scrapbook, using photos and mementos or heirlooms that are important.

 Hold/Attend Family Reunions

There is no better way to get a sense of family than by attending a family reunion.  Bringing everyone in the family together for a day will help children feel that special family dynamic and really help them feel that they belong.  If your family has never had a reunion or hasn’t had one in a while, then consider organizing and hosting one.  They are so much fun and your kids will love it!

Map Fun!

Get a large map of the country in which you live and place stickers on the towns or cities in which your ancestors lived.

Old Games, New Fun!

Take the time to learn a game that kids played a long time ago.  Perhaps this is a game you know your great grandmother played as a child or one you found that was part of your family’s culture a hundred or more years ago.

Growing Food

Many of our ancestors had to grow their own food.  One way children can connect with their ancestors is to start a garden and grow food that the family once had to grow to survive.

Learn a New Language

Many of us have ancestors that spoke a different language.  It would be a great adventure to learn the language your family once spoke.  You can do this with your child, having fun and creating a bond as you learn.

How to Create a Family Tree

Teaching Genealogy: Helping Children Connect with Their Family HistoryA family tree is a visual representation of your extended family back through the years.  You can see how you are related to the people in your family who are living and who you are related to from the past.  The first thing you will need to do when making a family tree with your kids is assemble the materials you will need.  You can find premade family tree templates and poster boards, but it becomes more difficult to custom-make the family tree.  It also takes away some of the fun of making your own.  To make a family tree from scratch, you will need the following materials:

  • Poster board
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Markers
  • Scissors
  • Paper
  • Glue
  • Family photos
  • Index cards

To make the family tree, follow these steps:

  1. Start working with pencil (you’ll want to draw the entire family tree in pencil first so that you can correct mistakes as you go) and place the child’s name at the bottom of the poster board. You can add the names of siblings beside each other.
  2. Above the child’s name, place the names of you and your spouse and draw a line between them and from them to the children.
  3. Work your way back, adding your parents above your name and your spouse’s parents above his or her name.
  4. Keep working your way up the poster board – and back in time – as you go.
  5. Paste photos of each family member next to the name if you wish and have photos available.
  6. Create an index card that signifies a major event between two people, such as a marriage, divorce, birth, etc.

You have complete freedom of creativity when making your family tree.  You can get creative with the materials and the colors you use.  Perhaps you can use different colored markers for different sides of the family.  You can use different line styles to represent different relationships between people.  You can even draw a tree around the structure of names.  There are no hard and fast rules.

Finally, remember that it isn’t important if you know every family member all the way back for ten generations.  Start with the people you know and work your way back as far as you are able.  You might find some gaps in your knowledge that you want to fill, but the most important thing is to have fun with the project and engage your children in your family history.

Once you have completed the family tree, hang it in a prominent place in your home so that you can see it each day or let your child hang in in their bedroom.  Go online and share photos of the family tree with family members that can’t come to your home to see it.  Every time your child sees the family tree, it will remind them of the incredible family history you all share.

Teaching Autistic Children

Teaching Genealogy: Helping Children Connect with Their Family HistoryIt’s important to consider how to teach genealogy and family history to an autistic child because working with an autistic child is very different and far more challenging.  As a parent of an autistic child, you are probably already familiar with the strategies that work best for conveying information to and teaching your child.  It’s important to apply these strategies to teaching your family history.

When talking about family with your autistic child, their age and ability to communicate will have a bearing on how you teach the concept.  Here are a few tips:

  • For children with severe communication problems, use visual teaching aids to teach about family. These can be family photos that you can arrange in a book, placing one photo per page.  You can then explain who is in the photo and tell something about the person if you think it’s appropriate.
  • If the child is able to, have them match names to photos.
  • Make a large family tree to which your child can attach photos. Making this family tree wall-sized will allow your child to easily place the photos and if they are able, they can match the photo with the name.
  • Take the time to show your child photos of all of your family members.
  • If you wish and think it might be helpful, you can choose someone else in your child’s life, such as a close friend, and make a book about their family. Using the other person’s name, you can label the photo’s in the book, such as “This is ‘person’s name’s’ Dad.”
  • Read books together about different types of families.
  • Older children that are on the high-end of the communication spectrum can create a family tree with you.

Resources for Children

For children who want to learn more about their genealogy, there are some great resources available.  Here is a list of online resources that are sure to get your young genealogist off to a great start: