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 them and their family, not just an abstract concept in a textbook. You’ll also be showing your child that research is rewarding and fun.

Genealogy’s growing popularity

As more and more families have access to the internet, and websites 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 are learned while making a family tree?

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

  • Genealogy
  • Generation
  • Maiden name
  • Pedigree
  • Surname

Older children will learn:

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

Introducing younger children to genealogy: making a family book

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

Explain to your child that genealogy is the history of their family. It is the history of their 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.

Supplies you’ll need to make a family book

  • Construction paper
  • Colored markers
  • Glue
  • Family photos

How to create a family 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.

For older children: researching the family tree

This is where older children’s inner detectives are called into action. Help them set a realistic research goal, based upon their age and ability.

Upper elementary students will be able to

  • Download a genealogy chart
  • Fill in as much of the chart as possible from personal knowledge

Middle school and high school students will also be able to

  • Pick up the phone and call family friends who might be able to fill in the blanks
  • Search databases online

Supplies you will need

  • Pencils
  • A notebook
  • A large storage box with a lid. A plastic box is best since some of the documents she may acquire will be valuable and should be protected from water damage.
  • Blank charts (available free online at Ancestry.com, TribalPages.com or Genealogy.com)

How to get started

  • Write their own name and date and place of birth in the Person #1 space
  • Give your child a copy of their birth certificate to put in their box
  • Provide your child with parents’ birth information (with copies of birth certificates if possible)
  • Next, your child will need to gather their grandparents’ information. If the grandparents are living, your child can interview them for their birthdates, birthplaces, and marriage dates and places. If one or more are not living, your child will need to interview other family members for the information, which should include the date and place of death. Encourage your child to ask for copies of birth, marriage and, if necessary, death certificates.
  • Now the investigation becomes a bit harder. Many children today do not have living great-grandparents. Your child may have to interview you or their grandparents for information about this generation. In addition, documentation can be difficult to obtain, but the determined detective may be able to locate them in family files, city records offices, or online.
  • Each generation past that great-grandparents will present bigger challenges, and with that comes the possibility of greater satisfaction, when long-forgotten family members are rediscovered.

Places to look for genealogical information

  • Back in the days when people didn’t have access to official birth and death certificates, many simply recorded such important information in a family Bible or other special book. Check to see if an older member of your family did this.
  • If your family has lived in the same town for generations, try the city or county office of vital statistics for information about your ancestors.
  • The local library often keeps records of old newspapers, either on microfilm or in a computer. You can search these newspapers for birth and death announcements.
  • Many census records are now available online.

Investigating the family tree is a wonderful way to personalize history for children and adults.

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Updated: September 22, 2021