Turn Family History into Summer Learning!
What happened in the news on the day you were born? How did your mom and dad meet? Where did your grandma live when she was a little girl? Did your grandpa serve in the military? While history class might not be your child’s favorite subject, he or she may appreciate playing detective to find the answers to questions about your own family.
Tracing the history of your family makes an engaging summer learning activity for days when it’s too hot or rainy to go out and play. As children follow clues and record facts, they exercise their minds and practice skills they will use in school, such as reading, writing, researching, and communicating. Genealogy can also help kids connect to the older members of their family.
If yours is a blended family, family history research could be a way for step- or half-siblings to collaborate and get to know each other’s family better. And for many people, genealogy becomes a lifetime hobby!
Use the Family Grapevine
The best way to begin a family history project is to talk to family members, particularly older people who may remember several generations. Perhaps you plan to visit relatives or attend a family reunion this summer—that’s the perfect way to get the scoop on your family tree. Here are some ways to get ready:
- Brainstorm with your children to make a list of questions to ask.
- If your kids are shy, tell them stories about some of the people they will meet so that grouchy Great-Uncle Phil won’t seem as intimidating.
- Equip your children with a camera or video camera (or a smartphone that has both) so they can take pictures of the people they meet or record the stories they tell.
If you are planning to stay home this summer, you and your children could contact relatives by phone or email—or you could even encourage them to practice the lost art of writing letters! Not only will they be practicing their handwriting and composition skills, but also your kids will enjoy receiving return mail.
For each “leaf” on your family tree, try to find out your relative’s full name at birth, date and place of birth, parents’ full names, full name of spouse and wedding date, as well as the names and birth dates of siblings and children, if applicable. For relatives in the more distant past, you will also want to record when and where they died. Help your kids see earlier generations of ancestors as real people by discovering additional facts, such as:
- What did they do for a living?
- Did they finish high school? college?
- Did they have nicknames?
- Where did they live? Did they own a home?
- What were their eye and hair color?
- Did they win awards or attain any significant accomplishments?
There are almost as many ways to learn about family history as there are families!
You may want to begin by researching on one of the many free genealogy sites, such as FamilySearch.org. Visit WikiTree.com to see if branches of your family have already been traced by other genealogists. If your interest grows, you could consider purchasing a short-term membership on a paid site like Ancestry.com. Be sure to supervise your children when they visit these websites, and remind them of Internet safety practices.
Here are a few additional examples of ways to learn more online or in person:
- Hunt through family photos, scrapbooks, and records.
- Go to the local courthouse or historical society to search their resources.
- Call or visit the courthouse or historical society in locations where relatives lived.
- Visit the cemetery where relatives are buried to verify names and dates, and to look for additional family members interred nearby. You may wish to have your children bring flowers to honor a relative or have a discussion about respect for the dead.
- Relatives who served in the military may be traced through a variety of online resources and through their branch of service.
- If your family immigrated to the United States by way of Ellis Island, visit www.libertyellisfoundation.org to see if you can find a record of their passage.
What Was Life Like Back Then?
Kids who balk at learning the dates of historical events may be interested to learn what was going on in the news and in pop culture on the day they were born. My own daughter was amused to learn that “Baby Got Back” was at the top of the charts when she entered the world! Start with your children, and then expand to include details from parents’ and grandparents’ lives to give kids a taste of how life has changed!
Here are a few birthday questions to get you started:
- What events were in the headlines?
- Who was the president?
- What movies, TV shows, and songs were popular?
- How old were your parents, and where did they live?
- What kind of car did they drive?
- What were the most important inventions that year?
- What famous people share your birthday?
Combine Your Knowledge
Although you can continue researching your family for years, your kids may want to pull together the clues and facts they gather into a project they can be proud of. They can use their brainpower and creativity to develop a project that is as unique as your family. Here are just a few ideas:
- Make a family tree on paper, on a bulletin board, on a poster, or online.
- Write a “book” of family stories gathered from relatives.
- Design a scrapbook of facts, pictures, and documents that tell your family’s story.
- Make a video history of your family.
Researching your family’s shared history can give your children a sense of pride and solidify their connection to relatives. Collaborating as a team and enjoying the fun of discovery can be rewarding for parents and kids alike. Just don’t tell them that they’re also practicing skills they learned in school!
What learning activities have you done with your children to keep their brains active during the summer? Share your best ideas in the comments.