Family History for Kids - Through Storytelling
Family history is extremely important to me. I grew up learning family histories from my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Wow – I heard some pretty amazing stories, too! I’m a grandparent now, and I want my grandchildren to learn about their ancestors on my side of the family. I’ve done a lot of research on my ancestors, but some of it is a little too complicated to share with my young grandchildren. A long line of names and dates involved with family histories can be pretty confusing and very boring for kids, so it often goes in one ear and out the other. I prefer to use the same methods that were used with me when I was a child – teaching family history through storytelling.
The oral tradition is the oldest form of passing down information from one generation to another. Before written language emerged, storytelling was the only way to pass along family histories and important events. Even after writing was developed, few people were literate, so the oral tradition dominated cultures around the globe for centuries. Some of our most famous examples of literature began as oral stories long before they were written down. A good example of this is the epic poem, Beowulf.
Many stories in the oral tradition were composed as poetry. Words with rhythm and rhyme were easier to remember than prose. Most groups of people had their own storytellers, and these men often held a well respected place in society. For example, the Anglo-Saxons had their scops, and the Norse had their skalds. These individuals traveled around from hall to hall and from castle to castle to both teach and entertain. Unfortunately, the oral tradition seems all but dead in our modern world.
Storytelling is a wonderful way to share family history with children. You’ll be able to hold the attention of younger kids if the tales are more interesting, of course. Practically everyone has some fascinating stories about their family members, in addition to having some colorful characters lurking in their family tree. If you have a really unforgettable story or family member, that would be a good place to begin with your family history stories. Later, you can build on that one story or character to expand your storytelling, using it, him, or her as a point of reference:
“Remember the story I told you about your grandfather and how he was a fighter pilot in World War II? Today I’m going to tell you a story about his brother, your great-uncle Tom.” This will give the child a chance to make family connections and base new information on former learning. Yeah – the teacher always come out in me!
To make your storytelling of family histories easier for children to understand, make a family tree to share with your children and/or grandchildren. There are several different types of family trees available, and you can find free templates on the internet to download. Some are for three generations, some are for four, and some are for more.
When you’re creating a family tree to share with kids, I suggest keeping it short and simple. A three-generation family tree is probably enough for young children to handle. You might also want to include small photographs on the family tree. As the child gets older, family trees can be added to, and more information can be included, like birth dates, marriage dates, death dates, and locations.
Below are some examples of family trees I found on the net. All the examples provide free downloads that can be printed and filled out. If you decide to complete this activity, and if your children or grandchildren are old enough, you might want to let them help make the family tree.
Stories are always more interesting with some type of pictures, and photo albums can come in handy here. Think of the people in the photographs as the characters in a story. This will really help kids put a face with the name. Don’t forget about the importance of setting in your family history tales, either. You can share photographs of houses, farms, and landscapes that provide more meaning and another dimension to your storytelling. It’s even better when you use the old photos while you’re sharing your stories with kids. They’ll serve the same purpose as illustrations in storybooks. Have the related photos ready before you begin the story. I’ll give you an example:
“Today I’m going to tell you a story about your grandfather when he was a little boy. (Show photo of grandfather.) He grew up on a farm in Ireland, and he lived in this house as a child. (Show picture of house.)”
The more photographs and photo albums you have that are related to the story, the better. This will help kids get to know their ancestors in a more personal way, even if the ancestors died years before the child was born. This is especially true in the case of interesting or unusual images. For example, my father’s family ran a dairy when he was a kid, and he used to ride the cows. He showed me an old pic of him on the back of a cow, and this really made his cow-riding story come alive for me.
In addition to photo albums, personal possessions can be good storytelling aids, too. The grandkids love it when I tell them stories about their great-grandmother’s nursing adventures and show them her nurse’s cape. I also tell them about how their great-great-grandfather served in World War I and spent time in a foxhole in France. I show them a photo of him in his uniform and allow them to examine a brass shell casing he engraved while in the foxhole.
How much of your family history do you know? Hopefully, you know interesting tidbits to engage in storytelling. If you don’t, or if you’d like more information, talk to some of your older relatives. Write down what you learn. This is important because you might get small pieces from several relatives, and it’ll be up to you to weave a narrative by putting the parts of the puzzle together.
If you have old documents, older kids might appreciate viewing them. These might include deeds, military records, census reports, or marriage certificates. Old family Bibles often have pages for family births, deaths, and marriages, too, so these might be good to share. If you have or can find old newspaper clippings, they can add a lot of interest to your family history stories, too.
Although I’ve stressed storytelling and the oral tradition here, I think writing down the information is important, too. For years, I’ve kept a folder with just such information. It includes written accounts of interesting family stories, poems written by my grandmother, some of my great-grandmother’s recipes, and newspaper clips about my great-great-uncle, who was a hot air balloonist. Such a collection can be passed down through the generations, providing a wealth of family history.
So…how do you make your storytelling stories interesting enough to appeal to a child with a short attention span? There’s an art to storytelling. I know people who can recount a mundane trip to the grocery store and make it sound interesting. Actually, I’m pretty good at storytelling, myself. I’ve had lots of practice. Teaching, rearing three kids, and entertaining nine grandchildren has honed my skills. Using photo albums and other things I’ve already discussed will help, and so will using a variety of sentence structures. Use dialogue, too, along with some colorful yet authentic dialect. My gang loves it when I “do” the voices of different characters.
Of course, having great material for storytelling stories is invaluable, but you have to work with what you have. Making a story more interesting isn’t the same as lying. Be honest with your child about his family history. Sure, most kids would love to hear that their ancestors were knights of the Round Table or war heroes, but resist the temptation to spread such fallacies when you have no credible evidence to support such claims. It is important, however, to instill a sense of pride in the child about his ancestors. These don’t have to be super-human heroic efforts. Instead, you might want to stress qualities like hard work, innovation, determination, kindness, compassion, and generosity. You never know how a child’s ancestors and his family history might serve as a positive influence.