Going down in history

Use your next family visit to teach the kids about their roots.

By Valle Dwight

With family members often scattered across the country, children may miss out on the life stories of their grandparents, family lore they could then pass on to their own kids. If you’re planning any visits with extended family this summer, bring along a tape recorder, video camera, or camera and set the kids to work on a family history project.

The project: Create a multimedia family history

Get ready: Plant the seeds

Before you go, write out a basic family tree for your kids, showing them how everyone is related. Focus especially on the people they will be talking with (no need to go back five generations at this point), and give them any background you know. The more the kids know to start, the easier it will be for them to ask informed questions.

Make it happen: Inspire your child’s inner reporter

Set up a time with each relative to sit down with your kids for an interview. Make sure to have the children bring a tape recorder, or set up a video camera. If they are having a hard time coming up with questions to ask, suggest that they go through photo albums with the relative (ask for copies of the most significant photos to include in your book). If any relatives were alive during a major historical event (Pearl Harbor, the moon landing, etc.), let the kids know and urge them to ask about it. Or if any relatives immigrated to the United States, get the kids to ask about the old country. Other suggestions for interview questions:

  • Where and when were they born?
  • Where and when were their parents born?
  • Did their parents ever tell them stories about their birth?
  • Where did they go to school? Any stories about favorite teachers?
  • What is their most vivid memory from childhood?

Once the stories have been told, encourage your children to write them out into a single narrative, not a list of facts. Urge them to use the anecdotes from relatives to help them tell the family tale. Liven up the stories with photos, timelines, a family tree, or copies of any significant documents.

For a multimedia history, have the kids intersperse the video segments with a slide show, narrated either by them (using their notes) or by the relatives from the interviews. Burn it onto a CD to share with the family. If the kids prefer to make a history book, have them print their story up at a copy shop with a nice cover and binding — instant Christmas present for the whole family!

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.