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Do You Know Your Family Tree?

Putting together a family tree is a great educational activity that uses math, writing, research and history skills.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

It's safe to say that most people know their grandparents' names. Maybe even where they were born and their birthdays.

But if you know your great-grandparents' names, you're doing better than most.

In fact, the majority of Americans do not know their ancestry more than three generations back.

We invite you and your child to take the GreatSchools Challenge: Name your great-great-grandparents -- all 16 of them. You'll be teaching your child that history is about her and her family, not an abstract concept in a textbook. You'll also be showing her that research is rewarding and fun.

Genealogy's Growing Popularity

As more and more families have access to the Internet, and Web sites devoted to genealogy have proliferated, tracing your family tree is easier to do now than ever before. While genealogy can become a lifelong task (and obsession), unearthing three or four generations of family history is relatively easy and doable.

What Lessons Does It Teach?

In the course of learning about his family tree, the younger child will also learn the meaning of such vocabulary as:

  • Genealogy
  • Generation
  • Maiden name
  • Pedigree
  • Surname

The older child will learn:

  • Internet research skills
  • How to collect and organize documents (for more advanced searches)
  • How history influenced her ancestors
  • More likely than not, some surprising facts about her ancestry

Introducing the Younger Child to Genealogy: Making a Family Book

For a child in the early grades, making a simple family book will teach him about his extended family, make him feel special and at the center of a protective cocoon of adults.

Explain to him that genealogy is the history of his family. It is the history of his mother, father, grandmothers, grandfathers, great grandparents, and on and on into the past as far as you can go. This family history can be put into an order, called generations, of parents and their offspring.

You will need these supplies for your family book:

  • Construction paper
  • Colored markers
  • Glue
  • Family photos

Creating your book:

  • First, talk about what makes a family. Discuss the fact that there are many different kinds of families, with many different configurations of adults, children, step-parents and step-siblings.
  • Expand this family grouping by making a chart of all family members that your child has ever met in person, or spoken to on the telephone.
  • Illustrate the book with photos or drawings of the primary individuals. Remember that this is just an introduction to genealogy, meant to reinforce the concept that all families have histories.

Comments from readers

"Please don't use construction paper or glue unless you are using a second set of photos. Photos do not last forever if not treated well. I suggest either having copies made of your photos or going to a scrapbooking/archival store for appropriate materials."
"We did a genealogical chart when my grandson was studying the Civil War. One of his ancestors, on my side of the family, served and we had a bibliography on him. My grandson did a poster board of info surrounding the chart and gave a short presentation. That made him feel very special. "
" yes it is. i am doing research on my family tree too."
"My children are adopted, so when this assignment appeared, I let them choose which family they wanted to chronicle. Which family it was, was their choice to reveal or not. An idea I had to open up the assignment, was that the family tree could be done on any person the writer chose. If you chose your own family, so be it. If you chose a movie star, I'm sure there is information available about that 'tree'. Same assignment without the intense personalization, unless that is what the student chooses."
"This is something that I always want to do with my son, he is only 4 right now, still too early. However, It is a good idea for future project."
" has a better more kid friendly chart. This one seemed a bit complicated. Not everyone knows that specific information. On they only ask for names and it's in a shape of a tree."
"LOVE IT! Will encourage my eight year old to get started. She is fortunate enough to have two living great grandmothers."
"As a parent of an adoptive child this activity is very difficult. I would like you to provide an alternative productive activity for adoptive children. Many examples can be found at Adoptive Families Magazine. "
"Please understand how difficult and even damaging family tree projects can be for children who are adopted and have no knowledge of their genetic origins. They have none of the information you describe and will feel bad within a group of children who can easily obtain it."
"awesome idea! having checked out every site available, I've found that is the best site for tracking and maining my tree"
"Is there a website for other countries like Central America. My ancestors are from Centro America I have some of the last names. Could this be enough? Please give ideas. I would like to give this gift to my children."
"In addition to the issues of adopted and foster children, one has to take into account the many blended families that exist today. My grandsons have four grandmothers and three grandfathers, although only two of the grandmothers and one grandfather have much involvement in their lives. And now their parents are getting a divorce."
"I think this is a great exercise and I am going to do it with my children. Incidentally my children are working on family trees for their class but they have only been asked to bring in at least three photos about their family. I wish I had seen this information before. Thanks."
"My children are all internationally adopted. What would this teach them? That they're not important. That they're inferior. Schools need to mind their own business when it comes to families. This is the 21st century and families are formed in many different ways."
"My son has a very large family on both sides of his family. This research will not only enlighten the curiosity for his history in everyone, but it will give him a sense of belonging to different cultures at the same time. My family tree has been researched by my cousin and I have all that information alresdy for him, his father's side is almost complete too, just three to four names left to fill in. My son is fortunate enough to have parents that are very interested enough to take the time to want him to know all about his heritage."
"My son is 6 and will enjoy learning more about his family. My Mother In Law does genealogy and it's an obsession for her, well over 20 years now. We could go see her information as an activity during our own creation. And my Father In Law was an adoptee so it'll be interesting to get information about his side of the family too - adopted and birth. He has one Great-Grandparent living on each side of the family and I think we'll go one generation further. Thank you for the great idea and all the help. This is going to be a many-branched family tree."
"I agree with a previous feedback. I teach children who are, for the most part, foster children, adopted children, etc. There are simply no records for their ancestories unless they contact family members who may not be allowed to have any contact with the children due to court orders. Instead of doing a personal family tree, I have asked the children to create a support tree of friends/teachers/adults who have supported them. We use basically the same type form, but have a space for a special note about each person rather than birth/marriage/death info. We have also investigated past President's family trees through research in order to allow children the opportunity to learn how to search through records/internet, etc."
"I think these topics of family history need to also take into consideration the adopted child. For many of these children their family history is not known. It is important for teachers to create lessons where the adopted child does not feel left out or different. Their esteem can be delicate when this topic comes up. (My son is adopted)"
"i think this article is great. it gives peaple a chance to get to know about there ancestors. our classics group is now going to get information on our grandparents and parents too. after we are going to share it with our class and try to inspire them on making a family tree to share with your family and friends. "
"i really love this article,i am for sure going to do this with my three kids."
"Excellent. Came in handy since our intermediate grade students are all doing a geneology project. Thanks"
"Wow, This is great...I love to poke into things like this...encourages me to go chat w/ my 90 yr. old grandmom & ask ...ask ...ask..."
" Very informative! Now I was born in Puerto rico, my father and mother were born there too, but my paternal grandparents came in from the Canary Islands , my great grandpa on my dads side was a Spanish -Arab by the name o Lasaro Nazario, whom I met as a 5 yr old, my moms family only goes back to her parents as they 'came in by boat' ? so where do I look for information? I have been to the town where i was born and cannot even find a record of my grandfather or where he is buried! I would like to find something out, but in essence we are all related! Thanks."
"I think this is great! The more kids can learn about their family's history the better. I have found a dozen Mayflower Pilgrims in my ancestry, and the children at school think this is 'cool'."
"This is awesome. I think every child should know where their ancestors came from. In lieu of spending time teaching how to take a test, we should go back to basics of reading, writing and math, and make sure our children learn history. Without historians, our history won't be preserved as it should. "
"What a fabulous tool for us to interact w/our grandson & that will give us an opportunity to build a special bond with him. I was able to enjoy this exact experience w/my own grandmother. I relished the days that she would bring out her trunk, and we would dig thru it,looking at old photos, old letters and her sharing 'the stories' of days gone by. I am now The Keeper of those stories & memoribilia.Perhaps this project will give me the *next* family member to pass our precious torch on to ;) Dallas, Tx."
"That's a great idea to teach children about their ancestors. They will learn history, politic, geography, costumes, names, immigration. It might amaze and shock many of them to realize how many ancestors leaved and survived to make their own life happen. 62 ancestors in just the last five generations! One of the best resources to use for educating children in genealogy - the new genealogy card game 'Six Generations', published in 2004 in USA. It sells at many on-line companies,'' '','Borders'. The price is only $8.97, and it's featuring the 64-members family in six generations. The web-site for the game is The schools and other organizations, buying many games at a time from the publisher of this game, can get the same wholesale discount, as the businesses have."