The best family history activities for children

Janet Few explains some straightforward steps for sharing your love of family history with the next generation, from toddlers to teenagers

Black and white photograph of a family looking at photo albums

Many genealogists regret that their younger relatives show no interest in family history. This is something that we must work to overcome, because the benefits are surprisingly wide-ranging.

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Research by Marshall Duke, an American professor of psychology, has found that children who have a good sense of their personal history are likely to be more resilient, have higher self-esteem and be better able to deal with stress: all excellent reasons for us to encourage young people to take an interest.

We also benefit if the children around us share our passion for genealogy. Not only may they become the willing custodians of all our lovingly gathered information when we pass away, but there is immense pleasure to be had from sharing a hobby we love with our loved ones.

Children won’t magically become fully committed family historians overnight, but we can inspire a passion for ancestry by building upon their existing interests. The most important point to remember is that they may want to ‘do’ family history, but they are very unlikely to want to do things our way.

Under 8s

Children are never too young to be introduced to a sense of the past. Playing with toys that used to belong to earlier generations can be a start. Dressing-up can be slanted towards historical costumes rather than superheroes, and toys can be dressed in old-fashioned clothes.

Family photographs do not have to be very old to be ‘historic’ for a young child. Merely having them on display can spark conversations about the past. Try recreating family pictures, with the child taking up a similar pose and wearing similar clothes to Mummy or Granny at the same age. Photographs can be turned into colouring-in outlines with appropriate software, or used to create picture books, with or without text.

Begin by making ‘special people’ cards for a toddler, using photographs of immediate family members, ideally with the child in too. As they get older, move on to lay out family trees using the photographs. Initially, just use living people with whom the child is familiar, adding earlier generations when the child’s understanding allows.

You can also make family trees for toys, or characters from favourite books or TV shows, and write or at least narrate your own short bedtime stories starring your ancestors.

8-12s

This is the age group who are the easiest to engage. Sharing activities with adults has not yet become uncool, and the children are not overwhelmed with homework.

Today’s children expect things to be interactive, immediate, bite-sized, tactile and visual, so activities need to take account of this. Most will be intrigued by family stories, particularly if they are exciting, quirky or gory. The Horrible Histories franchise plays on this, and can be a way to introduce a particular era that can be linked to ancestors’ experiences at that time. As well as Terry Deary’s bestselling original books, there is a monthly magazine and a very popular BBC TV series. Episodes are available on DVD and streaming services, and there is a highly interactive website featuring clips, episodes, games and quizzes.

Indeed history-themed games (both videogames and boardgames), toys, non-fiction books, novels and films will all encourage an interest in the past, and enable you to share information about family members who lived at the time depicted. You can also make your own games to reflect your ancestry. Use family photographs to create jigsaws or versions of popular games such as snap, Happy Families, Top Trumps and Guess Who?. The website Tools For Educators has useful templates for some of these.

Dominoes can also be adapted so that, instead of matching identical pictures, you match husbands and wives, or parents and children. Bingo can be made more complex too by, for example, calling out years of birth, or spouses’ names, rather than the names of the people on the cards.

Teenagers

By the time that young people reach secondary school, they may want to conduct more formal genealogical research, especially if they have previously been nurtured by a relative who was a family historian. Make this an exciting, shared activity, even if you have to go over old ground and let them replicate the discoveries you have already made.

The more creative ideas used for younger children should not be abandoned. Again, it is important to begin with the young person’s own interests. Musicians can make playlists appropriate for different generations. Budding actors can create plays relating to incidents in the family’s story. Bakers can cook recipes appropriate to earlier generations. Build upon topics covered in school history lessons, linking, for example, the First World War or the Victorians to ancestors alive at the time – but make sure your activities don’t seem like homework!

Adolescents are particularly likely to be attracted to anything that involves technology or social media. You could spark their interest by enlisting their help to create a family history website or animation. Use Pinterest, Instagram or the latest social media platform of choice to exchange family information. Create a shared family timeline using Twile, which can import a GEDCOM file. Or suggest producing a YouTube video to tell a family story.

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Janet Few is the author of Harnessing the Facebook Generation: Ideas for Involving Young People in Family History and Heritage. Her latest book is Sins as Red as Scarlet: The True Story of a Devon Town in Turmoil.