Roots: Genealogy Can be Child’s Play

Hip tips for making family history cool for kids.

Written by Paul Jones

Posted July 24, 2012

Even non-genealogists would welcome a show of interest in family history by their kids (or grandkids). The youngsters won’t give a fig for the names, dates, and locales of people they’ve never heard of, but they might acquire a rudimentary appreciation of their heritage through genealogical activities crafted to appeal to their sensibilities.

Colour photograph

Activities should be age-appropriate — what might interest a ten-year-old would bore the pants off a younger, or older, sibling. For kids of around five, plus or minus, energy-burning outings are the best bet, for example, a trip to a cemetery. Grade schoolers can often be amused by quirky facts, such as that great-granddad died in a lunatic asylum. With any luck, the information is “cool” or, the highest accolade, “gross.”

At this age, grandma’s photo albums and heirlooms may start to attract interest, especially if grandma is prepared to talk frankly about them — or about her experiences as a child of the same age in an earlier, not-plugged-in era. As kids proceed through middle school and into high school, they exercise their powers of abstract thinking and test their values; more complex family stories involving moral dilemmas just might capture their attention — for example, skeletons in the family closet.

At any age, getting kids in front of a computer may work like a charm, although you run the risk that they’d rather be playing video games. Younger kids might enjoy scanning family photos — inadvertently picking up family lore in the process. Older kids might be entertained by the detective aspect of searching online for information. Still, only the nerdiest will likely want to make a regular practice of it.

Hands-on activities may appeal to the right child, such as creating or updating a family scrapbook or drawing a family tree. (Get them to google “Bart Simpson family tree.”)

The family road trip is another time-honoured way of introducing children to their heritage. Some families have had great experiences visiting every house in which mom or dad has ever lived.

For kids who are joiners, the Scouts award a heritage badge that can be earned by preparing of a family or local history. Similarly, 4-H Clubs in various provinces offer programs in heritage, scrapbooking, and other family-related activities.

Many provinces give at least a nod to family history in the social studies curriculum. Preparation of a family history project for a local Heritage Fair would offer an intense educational experience. This might be an illustrated narrative of great-granddad’s wartime exploits or a first-person description of the family’s immigration experience. More than a thousand schools nationwide participate in Heritage Fairs, which are supported nationally by Canada’s History Society. (An aside to teachers: If you have the opportunity to offer a family history module, jump at the chance. Few topics will as readily accommodate diversity and inclusiveness while teaching computer, research, and analytical skills.)

Finally, you can scour the Internet for fun ideas for family activities with a genealogical twist. (“Genealogy for Children”) offers numerous suggestions and links. For kids who are self-starters, refer them to CanadaGenWeb for Kids (and the related WorldGenWeb for Kids).

If you really want to dedicate yourself to your kids’ genealogical coaching, you might want to improve your own credentials. FamilySearch has a number of videos on YouTube such as How to Help Kids Love Family History and Fun Ways to Engage Children in Family History, offering multiple activities such as cemetery field trips, scavenger hunts and road trip storytelling. The National Institute for Genealogical Studies provides inexpensive online courses in planning a family video, a family reunion, or a family website — all activities in which kids could happily participate.

Paul Jones, a former publisher, is a writer, a consultant, and an avid genealogical researcher and volunteer.

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Canada’s History magazine. Article was updated by Canada’s History staff in February 2023.

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