Family history involves learning more about your family and how it has developed over time: Who are the members of your family, and what kind of lives have they led? Where did they come from? What are their stories? How far back can you trace your family?
Children often enjoy participating in family history and genealogical research. After all, this field is highly engaging and requires skills that are similar to detective work. Family history researchers seek out new information and clues, piece together available historical records and oral testimonies, and solve mysteries like, “Why did Great-Grandma Jo immigrate to Canada?” and “When and how did my family arrive in Wales?”
This guide will help you encourage your children as they explore the history of their own family past. I will explain the basics of conducting genealogical research and involving children in this process. I’ll also suggest hands-on activities for kids with an interest in family history.
Where to start
Learning about family history requires a number of different research skills, such as:
- Finding information and historical records
- Interpreting what you’ve found
- Conducting oral history interviews
- Using genealogical software or online programs
- Fact-checking and verifying information
- Keeping your notes organized
- Reading sources in multiple languages, possibly written in difficult-to-decipher handwriting
- Compiling a coherent narrative or diagram
There’s a lot to learn, and it can be daunting to know where to start and to determine which activities are best for kids, especially younger ones. Here’s what I recommend for your first steps into discovering your family history:
- Make a record of what you already know. Your kids can help out a lot with this step. Who are their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins? When and where were they born? You and your children can work on creating a family tree to keep all this information organized—more on that in the next section.
- Decide what you want to know. I suggest giving your kids the freedom here to suggest questions and topics that interest them. What would your children like to learn about their relatives? Are there any kinds of stories or details that spark their interest? Any family tree gaps or mysteries that they want to uncover? Kids are often delightfully curious and may come up with things that surprise you!
- Talk with your family members. Practising oral history is a fantastic way not only to learn more about family history, but also to allow the kids to spend quality time with their grandparents or other relatives. With a little guidance, children can conduct interviews themselves to find out what their relatives remember about their families and ancestors. You should also find out if any of your family members have old photo albums, keepsakes, mementos, letters, or other items.
- Begin the search for historical documents and records. This step is perhaps the most challenging, but if your children are determined family history detectives, then that’s part of the fun! Below, I’ll give you some tips for helping your kids find and interpret historical documents such as census records, baptism records, and military service records.
Tips for involving your children
Those are the four basic steps for researching family history, but of course your children’s ages and interests will determine how involved they become in each step. Don’t push it! You don’t want to overwhelm your children or make family history feel like a chore.
Younger kids may enjoy looking at old pictures or playing the games that you and your parents used to enjoy. They might enjoy decorating a family tree, or asking grandma what life was like when she was their age.
Remember that you don’t have to dive centuries into the past to engage in family history. Your kids will gain a sense of their family history and identity simply by learning more about you. Do they know where you grew up? Where you went to school?
I also suggest highlighting the fun parts of family history. Are there any cultural festivals in your area that you can take them to? I have many fond childhood memories of visiting cultural festivals that had tons of food, carnival rides, and arts and crafts booths for teaching traditional crafts. These kinds of interactive experiences will go a long way toward sparking children’s excitement about family history.
As your children get older, they’ll be able to participate more fully in the research process if they want to. I’ve had good experiences guiding my children through the basics of conducting an oral history interview and helping them locate historical records. They see it as a sort of puzzle—sometimes frustrating, but very rewarding when all the pieces fall into place.
Making a family tree
Drawing up a family tree will help you and your children stay organized while studying your family history. Family trees help you keep track of all your relatives and ancestors and understand how everyone is related to each other.
There are many options out there for creating a family tree. Children can also put pen or coloured pencil to paper to design their very own family trees—this makes a fun arts and crafts project!
Getting started with a family tree is very easy; simply begin with what you know! Start your tree with immediate family and close relatives. Then, use oral history interviews to help expand the tree. Your child can even show the family tree to older relatives they’re interviewing and ask for help filling in more branches.
Oral history lies at the heart of discovering more about your family history. Sure, there are all sorts of paper records and historical documents, and I’ll get into those below. But don’t underestimate the power of simple storytelling. As an added bonus, this form of family history is often quite fun and accessible for children, even younger ones. All it requires is some curiosity and an older relative who is willing to talk.
The sooner you start collecting oral histories, the better. Many people remember all sorts of fascinating stories and details from their lives, but if you don’t ask, you may never find out. So encourage your kids to get in touch with their elderly family members—people who remember how things were decades and decades ago.
Often, elderly relatives are invaluable for piecing together a solid family tree. After all, they probably can tell you the names (and other crucial information like birthdate and place) of their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and perhaps even great-grandparents. With their help, your child can construct a family tree that stretches back multiple generations.
How to help your child conduct oral history
First, familiarise yourself with the general guidelines and best practices for oral history interviews. These will help you guide your kids through the process.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Record each oral history interview. Even a simple smartphone video is better than nothing. If your children are too young to operate recording equipment, then this is something you can do for them. You may actually find that this is super easy for your tech-savvy kids! Either way, I recommend making an audio or video recording so that you don’t get distracted with frantically jotting down notes. A good recording means that you can devote your full attention to the interviewee and check the tape later to confirm or re-listen to something.
- Choose your interview location wisely. Avoid loud places with lots of traffic or construction noise.
- Have your child brainstorm questions to ask. What do they most want to know? What are they curious about? I’m always pleasantly surprised by the strange and often wonderful directions kids’ minds take. Sure, there’s specific information that you might want to pin down in an interview (names, dates, places, marriages, etc.) to help you look up records later. For me, however, the best part of doing family history with my kids is the conversational aspect of oral history.
- Encourage open-ended questions. While I do believe in letting kids take the lead here, that doesn’t mean offering no guidance at all! Prompt them to identify topics and areas that interest them, and help them formulate questions in open-ended ways. By doing this, you’ll help your kids think like historians. So, instead of asking yes/no questions like, “Did you like living in Glasgow in the 1950s?” ask more open questions like:
- “Why did you move to Glasgow in the 1950s?”
- “What did you like about living in Glasgow? What did you dislike?”
- “How was Glasgow different back then from today?”
- Keep interviews to a reasonable length. Bear in mind that young kids and elderly family members alike probably don’t want to spend hours and hours on an interview! I’d recommend keeping each interview to an hour or less, and remember that you can always schedule multiple interviews with the same person.
- Ask about photos, records, or historical items. Chances are good that older family members will have photo album or various family heirlooms that they would love to share with curious younger relatives.
Documents and records
In addition to oral history, you may be curious about documentary evidence concerning your family history. What kinds of records can you expect to find? There are many different types that you and your child may encounter, including:
- Census records
- Baptism records
- Marriage records
- Death or burial records
- Military service records
- Immigration records
- Court records
I also highly recommend checking out GENUKI, a “virtual reference library” that focuses on genealogical records and information relating to the UK and Ireland.
As an added bonus, both the National Archives and GENUKI offer large amounts of resources and records for free.
You can also use FreeBMD to search for birth, marriage, and death records in England and Wales, FreeCEN to search for UK census records, and FreeREG to search through UK parish registers. These three websites are part of the Free UK Genealogy project, which aims to make family history records freely available and accessible online.
In addition to these free resources, there are some good sites out there that require fees or subscriptions. If you and your kids get really into family history, then it might be worthwhile to check these out:
- Ancestry: Subscribe to Ancestry to search through a huge database of historical records and build a family tree.
- Genes Reunited: This is another site that lets you search through tons of records and organize what you find. It offers some basic functions for free, and additional functions can be purchased via subscription or pay-as-you-go.
- Scotland’s People: If you are Scottish or have Scottish ancestry, this site may come in handy. You can search for free, and if you find anything good, you can then pay to view the record.
Apart from conducting research, there are numerous activities you can enjoy with your kids to encourage their interest in family history and help them understand what life was really like for their ancestors. Here are a few ideas:
Visit a graveyard
If you have relatives or ancestors buried in a local graveyard, your children may be interested in paying a visit. You can point out family gravestones and tell stories about relatives whom you remember but your kids never got to meet.
It might seem counterintuitive, but seeing actual tombstones is a good way to bring family history to life. Your ancestors aren’t just names on old dusty records; they were real people who lived and breathed in the world.
So, bring your children, pay your respects, and consider taking photos of family graves or doing tombstone rubbings—you can add this information to all the other genealogical research you’ve been compiling.
Palaeography is the study of historical handwriting. Perhaps you’ve discovered some old family letters from the 1890s. It may take you and your children some practice before you’re able to decipher the handwriting.
Learning how to read old handwriting is a fun challenge. Check out this script tutorial and try your hand at reading historical documents in the original handwriting.
Make a traditional family recipe
Do your parents have a favourite family recipe? Perhaps one that has been handed down from generation to generation for as long as anyone can remember? Ask them if they’d be willing to teach this classic heirloom recipe to the grandkids. Alternatively, you and the kids can cook it up as a nice surprise for the grandparents.
Food is an important part of history, and by eating the very same recipes as your grandparents and great-grandparents, you’re sharing an experience across the generations.
Learn the historical context
Family history is of course part of all history. Understanding your ancestors’ experiences often involves delving into the historical context surrounding their lives and actions. So, teach your children about the general historical trends and events relevant to your family.
Remember that there are many hands-on ways to learn about and even participate in history, such as visiting historical sites or learning about traditional crafts.
You can teach your children how to perform old-fashioned chores or handicrafts, for example. My grandma was always giving me new cross-stitch and embroidery patterns to attempt (though she’d usually end up tearing out my sloppy stitches and redoing them herself).
Try a DNA test
DNA testing can complement the historical research you’ve done and help you find and connect with living relatives. There are different kinds of DNA tests out there, but most people find that autosomal DNA tests suit their needs.
As you may have read in recent news stories, there are reasons to think carefully before buying a DNA test for your child. DNA tests can reveal potentially upsetting information, for example concerning health risks or biological relationships among family members.
So, I recommend proceeding with awareness and caution. It’s a good idea to wait until children are older (at least in their teens), so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not they want to pursue this avenue.
You may find additional information at the following sites:
- BBC Family History: The BBC offers useful research guides to get you started, covering topics such as surname meanings, working in archives, and constructing your family tree.
- FamilySearch, Family History Activities for Children: This page compiles games, exercises, and challenges for children ages 3 to 11 who want to learn more about their families.
- com, Developing Your Research Skills: Here you’ll find a long, long list of articles on virtually all aspects of the research skills needed for family history, from advice on finding Church records to sample oral history questions.
- Family Tree Kids: This kid-friendly page is all about becoming a “family detective” and digging up “genealogy clues.” Have your children check it out!
For me, the best part of family history is that I now have family all over the globe. Thanks to my dad’s interest in family history, we’ve stayed connected to countless distant and far-flung family members, with whom I’ve travelled, spent the holidays, corresponded, and met for coffee. My children are now benefitting from the same wide network of family members.
I hope you and your children have an incredible and rewarding time as you explore the past and perhaps connect with living relatives in the present. And if you’ve already begun your research, what advice would you give to parents of budding genealogists?