The Shay No. 11 steam locomotive let out an ear-splitting whistle. My 7-year-old son, Jeremy, shrieked as our passenger car lurched forward. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was enjoying one last getaway with my two young sons before school started.
As the train chugged along the shady forest track high in the Appalachian Mountains, a man made his way to the rear of our car, which was at the end of the train. He grabbed an old steering wheel with his gloved hands and cranked. We heard a metallic creak and felt the train slow.
“Look, he’s helping to stop the train,” I said to the boys. “He’s a brakeman.”
Four-year-old Alex watched, wide-eyed, as the brakeman swung down from the train and pulled a switch along the tracks. The brakeman then used one arm to pull himself back onto the car, and the train started moving the opposite direction, up a switchback.
“Cool,” Alex breathed. “I wanna be a brakeman.”
“That would be cool,” I agreed. “You know what? Your Great-great-grandpa Morton was a brakeman in these very mountains almost 100 years ago.”
It was the shortest genealogy lesson I’ve ever given. It was also the most memorable. Three years later, both boys still recall that old Grandpa Morton was a brakeman on a West Virginia logging line.
I learned a lesson myself that day: Teaching heritage to young children can be fun for the student and the teacher. Naturally, children’s interest, enthusiasm, comprehension and retention will vary by age. We’ll give you several teaching ideas for kids of all ages that you can use whether you live next door or a plane ride away. Try them with your children, grandkids or other young relatives, and you’ll create wonderful new family memories while passing on your favorite stories and traditions.
Baby and toddler projects
Think infants and toddlers are too young for family history lessons? Think again. Even if you live far away, you can help them recognize the names and faces of their relatives. It’s easy and gives young children a sense of themselves as part of a large, loving family.
My friend Sarah Parks wanted her baby Sam to know his long-distance relatives. Parks bought an inexpensive, soft-cover photo album made especially for babies and filled it with copies of family photos.
“Every picture had Sam in it, along with a relative,” Parks explains. “On each page I’d say, ‘Who loves Sam?’ Later, we upgraded to hardcover photo books with cheap plastic pages filled with pictures of him and all his cousins.” Parks says her son loved the albums and they kept his attention. “He would look at them forever.”
Any relative can make an inexpensive photo book for a young child. For babies and young toddlers, try a soft-sided book such as Baby’s My First Photo Album of Family and Friends (Genius Babies). For older toddlers, fill any inexpensive photo album with pictures; caption them with index cards slid into slots next to the pictures. Focus on durability and fun, not archival safety. The idea is to give a little one a favorite plaything, not a hands-off heirloom.
Preschoolers love to learn in hands-on ways. Rachael Hartman, a longtime children’s librarian in Middlefield, Ohio, offers advice on how to engage the 3- to 5-year-old crowd.
“Preschoolers are pretty self-centered,” explains Hartman. “They want stuff that relates to them. If you had family pictures taken when they were babies, point out the child in the photo. Make a simple puzzle of a family picture and say, ‘Find the piece with you in it.’”
You also can use duplicate copies of family photos to create a matching game that teaches about less-familiar relatives. The kids will learn to associate names with faces and you can share details about each relative when his or her photo is selected. Share tidbits kids will relate to and find interesting such as, “You found both pictures of Grandma Warden. Did you know she loves pink, just like you?”
“Young children also learn a lot by doing,” Hartman continues. “They like to pretend and play dress-up. Give them some old clothes. Say, ‘When I was little, I wore this. Let’s pretend that you can play with me when I was little.’” Then use the time to teach the child some of your favorite childhood games or share memories of your favorite toys.
Children this age can tell their own stories, too. As a preschooler, my friend kept a picture diary. Every Sunday, she colored a picture about what had happened that week. Her mother captioned it for her. This early sense of history helped her develop a lifelong interest in telling stories. Today she continues the habit by documenting daily family life on a blog and by sharing her stories with friends.
“By the time they’re in school, kids become aware that everyone’s not just like them,” Hartman says. “They see children at school with different home experiences and ethnicities.”
School-age kids also begin to learn about the world around them through history, geography and cultural studies. Field trips such as my train ride with my sons are great hands-on experiences for 5- to 8-year-olds. But don’t go overboard on historic house tours or don’t-touch museum exhibits. Instead, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, a canal boat, riverboat, coal-mining car or steam train. Find places to try old-time activities such as candle dipping, churning butter, spinning yarn or writing on a slate. Share genealogy factoids as you do it. This also is a good age to teach about your family tree. Recently my sons, now ages 6 and 9, were asking how our large family fits together. I had them fill in familiar names of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents on a piece of posterboard. Then I wrote in one more generation while sharing a fact about each ancestor. My son Jeremy learned where his middle name came from; both learned where the “brakeman grandpa” belongs on our pedigree.
During this family tree fill-in activity, my kids learned what a maiden name is, what “great-” means, and about second cousins. They also searched the tree for answers to questions I tossed out: Who are you named after? Which first names show up on both sides of the family? Which relative’s initials spell out his first name? For a kid-friendly family tree display that’s fancier (and more permanent) than poster board, consider HearthSong’s Family Tree Wall Stickers. You can use relatives’ names and photos on the leaves to personalize the colorful (and removable) 3-foot-tall display.
Kids can fill in their own family trees—and learn how to research them—with The Family Tree Detective: Cracking the Case of Your Family’s Story by Ann Douglas (Owl Books). This engaging introduction to family history sleuthing leads young readers (ages 7 to 12) through several detective-like activities. The book is available at many libraries, but young relatives may want their own copies so they can fill in the workbook-style charts.
By second or third grade, most kids are ready to learn about the census. Remind them that the US census is a list of everyone who lives in this country that the government makes every 10 years. Help them guess who might appear on that list 80 years ago—it could be a great-grandparent, historical figure or sports hero. Then search a census database together from home, the library, or a Family History Center. You’ll find censuses on subscription sites Ancestry.com and Fold3, HeritageQuest Online (available through many public libraries), and the free FamilySearch.org. Help the child discover what the census tells about that person.
Finally, kids can learn a lot about their ancestors’ world by reading. See the toolkit on the opposite page for book series that present fictional yet realistic accounts of children’s lives in different times and places. Or ask a children’s librarian about books relating ancestral experiences, such as the immigration story told in the Caldecott Medal winner Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, ages 4 to 10).
Middle school is a transitional time for many children. They’re often street smart, technology savvy and socially self-conscious, like young teenagers. But they also can be highly imaginative, curious and spontaneous, like little kids. If you catch them at the right moment, 8- to 12-year-olds are both eager to learn and able to understand and appreciate what they’re taught.
How do you capture a tween’s interest? Find a topic or activity that’ll engage him, then quietly remove distractions such as internet access and observers who may make him self-conscious. Or harness those social forces to your advantage: Help him start an e-mail pen-pal exchange or invite his best buddy to join you in a genealogical activity. If your tween shows an interest in reporting, let her start interviewing relatives. Encourage her to ask questions she cares about. These will often relate to her own life: What kind of chores did you do? Did you get along with your sister? Who was your best friend? Family Tree Kids gives a list of 10 questions a young person might ask. Help your tween negotiate with an interview subject on how best to record the conversation, and keep a copy yourself.
Perhaps your 11-year-old grandson loves construction toys. Find an age-appropriate model kit that introduces a family history topic, such as the first car your grandfather owned. Schedule a special evening with the boy, order pizza, and work on the model together. Have a backup plan (your favorite old TV westerns on DVD) in case the model’s not a hit.
Many kids ages 8 to 12 like to create games. When my 8-year-old son made his own version of Monopoly, he came to me wondering what to call his game squares. It was easy to suggest “Mortonopoly,” with squares relating to his relatives’ hometowns, street names, last names and occupations. You also can challenge this age group to create word games—such as crossword puzzles or word searches—that incorporate family names, places, occupations and trivia. Help them make custom family-themed word puzzles at a free website such as EdHelper. Family Tree Kids! also has a family-history themed word search and word jumble: print two copies and try it with your kids. For a heritage game that’s already made for you, play LifeStories (Talicor).
Finally, kids this age often take an interest in writing. Give a diary as a gift and share a passage from the diary of an ancestor. Encourage a tween to write an autobiography or a biography of an ancestor. Add photos and then publish it with inexpensive binding from a local copy center. If you have a book about a relative, give it to your child along with the copy of his or her own biography.
Teenagers may seem like an intimidating audience for a family history lesson. Try it anyway. Even if they don’t go gaga over a genealogy discussion, you’ll plant seeds of interest that may burst into bloom later in life. As with any age, the first step is relating family history into their current interests. Technology is a daily sport—if not a passion—for many teens. Take advantage of their interest (and possibly their expertise) by helping them train a digital eye on their family history.
Challenge your teenage relative to make a family documentary if he has the interest and the tools. If movie-making is his dream, entice him by offering easy-to-use video-editing software (such as Corel VideoStudio Pro X3). If a digital video recorder isn’t handy, find a “retro” camcorder or tape recorder, or help him use the video feature on a digital camera or the audio recorder on any number of digital media. Provide opportunities to film relatives and shoot other footage. Offer on-camera tours at important family sites (an ancestral hometown, house or favorite old hangout). Help the teen obtain or create digital images of important family documents and artifacts. Offer your assistance, but don’t take over: Let his interest drive the project.
The final product may not be PBS-worthy. It could simply be a quick slide show with a voice-over. Don’t be too disappointed if the teen gets distracted before finishing the entire project. Get copies of the footage and archive it yourself. Other tech-savvy teens might enjoy an internet genealogical scavenger hunt. Describe the data you’re looking for and show her home sources where she can find clues. Walk her through a search on your favorite subscription site. Then show her Cyndi’s List and let her go to it.
Enable parental controls on the computer or hover nearby with a book to prevent inappropriate material from popping up. Encourage the teen to add the term genealogy or family history to every search to weed out many unsavory sites. You may be pleasantly surprised at what your teen will find. Even if the results don’t help your search, show genuine interest. Rewarding these efforts with a pizza won’t hurt, either.
Not every teen wants to jump onto a computer or get behind a video camera. Some would enjoy seeing their parents or grandparents as teens in front of the camera, though. Pull out your high school yearbook (if you dare). The hairstyles and fashions will give you both a laugh—and an opportunity to compare notes on peer pressure, grades and friendship.
In honor of this year’s homecoming season, consider dusting off your heirloom prom tuxedo or dress and other adolescent artifacts: costume jewelry, a love token, the keys to your first car. Show off the memorabilia when the timing is right, even if you just e-mail photos and a story about them with a “have fun at the homecoming dance” message.
Don’t be discouraged if your carefully planned moments with teens fall flat sometimes. Keep a sense of humor and gently persist on other occasions. Your niece may pretend not to care, but she probably is listening. One day she may come back and ask to hear that story again. You won’t mind repeating yourself at all.
Multiple age projects
Need an activity that kids of different ages can do together? Gather memorabilia and copies of photos from a recent vacation or family activity. Or let them dig through your file of double prints. Give each child a scrapbook album (see the toolkit on the opposite page), photo adhesive and a journaling pen. Spread it all out on a table and have fun. Encourage them to write their own captions and stories for the photos.
As young relatives grow, you can build on what you’ve already taught them. Some family stories even become a legacy to live by. My brother Chris says that when he was 14, my father took him to help fix up a widow’s home. “Dad pulled me aside before we went in the house and said, ‘Let me tell you something about our family: We take care of people,’” my brother recalls.
After a full day of drywalling and painting, the lesson sank in. Today he’s passed on the story to his four children, the oldest of whom is Ian, a teenager. “Every time I say we need to go help someone, Ian is the first one in the car because he knows that story,” Chris says. “Telling these stories defines my kids. It tells them who they are.” Even if you don’t think the kids are paying attention to your stories, keep sending scrapbooks in the mail or telling that funny story about something your father did when he was young. They’ll absorb the information, even if they don’t express it. It’s worth every bit of effort to help children know their forebears. These legacy lessons are something they won’t learn in any school but yours.
Grown-up project: Write a heritage-themed children’s book
Paula Shepherd is a schoolteacher and genealogist who writes heritage-themed stories for her grandchildren, most of whom live far away from her. She caters to their interests by including lively text and photos of the children themselves in her books.
Shepherd also turned a family artifact into an exciting story for her grandchildren. “We have the sea chest that my husband’s great-grandfather brought from Wales,” Shepherd says. “I wrote The Sea Chest of Robert Smith about their ancestor’s life. When the grandchildren all came in town, we had a pirate party. They followed treasure maps with family-themed landmarks.” The sea chest—and the story—was central to the entire festivities.
“I’m not an artist. I’m just a grandma,” Shepherd says. “And I want to leave my grandchildren with memories.” Alexis Debaltzo wanted genealogy to come alive for her young daughter Sophie. But her written family history didn’t exactly read like a bedtime story. So when Sophie was 6, Debaltzo created a scrapbook of her ancestors for Sophie called My Little Girl.
“It starts with Sophie’s fourth-great-grandmother and moves forward through the women, down to Sophie,” explains Debaltzo. “Each woman has a two-page spread. On one page, I told the ancestor’s story in first person and included what pictures I had. On the other side, there are individual stories about that woman, preferably as a child.”
The last pages of the album are filled with photos and stories from Sophie’s own childhood. The text includes her mother’s expressions of love, and her hope that one day she will pass this history on to her own little girl. Following the single thread of women’s lives and focusing on childhoods made family history more understandable and interesting to a 6-year-old. “The idea was to make it a night-time storybook,” says Debaltzo. “She loved it. She can still count the generations up.”
Climbing Your Family Tree by Ira Wolfman (Workman Publishing, ages 9 to 12)
The Family Tree Detective by Ann Douglas (Owl Books, ages 7 to 12)
The Kids’ Family Tree Book by Caroline Leavitt (Sterling, ages 9 to 12)
Your Family Tree by Nuria Roca (Barron’s Educational Series, ages 4 to 8)
American Girl series (Pleasant Co.): fictional stories of girls representing various historical eras and cultural experiences in US history; age ranges center on 9 to 12
Dear America series (Scholastic Books): fictional girls’ diaries set in specific time periods, appealing to ages 9 to 12
My America (Scholastic Books): fictional diaries for readers ages 7 to 10
My Name is America series (Scholastic Books): fictional boys’ diaries set in specific time periods, appealing to ages 9 to 12
For young children: KidsCan Press’ Memory Scrapbook series: paperback titles including My Grandma and Me, My Baby Sister and Me and My Family and Me
For school-age children: Creativity for Kids’ It’s My Life Scrapbook Kit, complete with tools and embellishment
For teens: Creative Memories Paper Album Kits, complete with matching embellishments
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Family Tree Magazine