Cross Curriculum, Mixed Grade, Homeschool Teaching Tips
Normally at this time of year, many generations of family members gather together to give thanks. This year due to the COVID pandemic, those gatherings will probably be smaller and might include virtual dinners and phone calls, but families will still be together in spirit. Younger children may find it hard to figure out how everyone is connected to each other, especially since families can’t all be together in person. That makes it the perfect time to teach children about their family tree.
Creating a family tree is a wonderful tool to help children visualize how each member fits into the family — a graphic form of who’s who. They’ll be able to easily see where they come from and learn about family members they may not even know. Depending upon the information you choose to include, students may also learn about the history of their family in a new and engaging way.
A family tree project may be tailored for different ages and incorporate a variety of subjects. For example, younger children may create an artistic masterpiece and learn about history and geography in addition to genealogy, while older students will delve into sociology, math, reading and writing, and high schoolers might choose to include biology and public speaking. You can make the project fun and easy, or really probe and reach into your family’s history. Often the best thing to do is start small and let the children guide how far they want to go.
This video shows a fun and easy way for younger children to construct a family tree using paper, glue, scissors and family photos.
Designing Your Family Tree
The most important thing to remember when designing your family tree is to include your students in the decision-making process. Letting them help guide the activity will make it a fun project rather than one more assignment. It will also make the project more meaningful, and the students will be more engaged if they get to help make decisions.
The tree may be as elaborate or as simple as you choose and may include a lot of information or just names and relationships. It all depends upon what you decide as a family. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin your genealogy.
Ascending Versus Descending Order
The first thing you should determine before putting your family tree together is whether you want to use an ascending or a descending order. Ascending trees start with one person — in this case, your child — and traces their ancestry backwards, while descending trees begin with the ancestors and work their way to today’s generation. Ascending trees are more common. They are also typically easier for children to understand and follow since they start with themselves and the people they know well and grow to include family members they may not even know existed.
Timeline for Family Members
Once you determine which the order you to use, you should decide how far back you want to go. If you have young children or a large family, you may only want to go back a couple of generation. Smaller families or older students may choose to go back many generations. You might pick a signature event (like coming to America), or a year, or simply go back as far as oral family history will take you.
Remember, the farther back you go, the longer it will take to grow your tree and the more room you’ll need.
What Information to Include in Your Family Tree
Next, decide what information you want to include. Simple family trees just show everyone’s names and relationships. You may also choose to add important dates (birth, death, marriage, etc.). To make the tree more meaningful, you may opt to include as many photos as you are able to find. If some of the people have important titles, awards or interesting facts, you could include those. You might even list signature world events (for example, someone who was born the day of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or died during the Civil War).
One way to make this an even more memorable activity, and bring some history and biology into the project, is to let your kids be family detectives and do some research. Here are a few suggestions, but remember to let your students help guide the project.
- Interview Grandma, Grandpa or another family member from an older generation to find out some interesting facts about the family — typically they are the best resources for more distant relatives.
- Find out what country your ancestors come from. Learn when, how and/or why they came to America or your native country. Look up these places on a map and discover some of the customs from the old country. If your ancestors are Native Americans, learn about your tribe, where they originated and their customs.
- Explore favorite foods your ancestors ate and try making one or more of the dishes.
- Get photos of as many people as you can find and look for family traits. See if your student can see any family resemblance.
Again, keep in mind the resources you have, ages of your kids and how much time you want to spend on the project.
Learn the Terminology
There are many terms for familial relationships that your child may not already know. Be sure to explore these and make sure they understand their meanings. You might even choose to add them to their spelling lists in the days and weeks to come. Below are a few examples, but there are many others.
- Sibling: brother or sister
- Uncle or aunt: mom or dad’s brother or sister
- Cousin: son or daughter of an aunt or uncle
- Nephew or niece: son or daughter of a sibling
- Grandparents: mom or dad’s parents
- Great-grandparents: grandparents’ mom or dad
- In-laws: people who are related by marriage
- Half brother or sister: a relative that shares one but not both parents
- Step sister or brother: a sibling who is a child from a parent’s previous marriage
Here’s a fun video to teach younger children about familial relationships and generational terminology.
Keep in mind that each family and/or nationality may use different terms for family members — for example: grandmother, grandma, nana, mema, oma, abuela all mean the same thing in different countries or parts of America. Be sure to substitute whatever pronouns your family uses to make it more understandable for your student.
Representing Different Generations and Family Groups
To make it easier for children to understand the relationships between each family member, it’s a good idea to use vertical and horizontal when creating your family tree.
- Members of the same generation should be kept on the same horizontal (side to side) line. For example, grandparents should align horizontally; parents, aunts and uncles should align below the grandparents in a horizontal line; and the student, their siblings and cousins should align below their parents.
- Members of the same “branch” of the family should align vertically (up and down). So, grandparents would have a vertical line connecting them to the parents, aunts and uncles. Each set of parents would then have a vertical line connecting to their children.
If your family is a blended family, determine how (or if) you want to represent those members who are related by other marriages. Do you want to include people that are not blood relatives? If those members are important to you and/or your students, you might want to include them. To keep it simple and easy, you could stick with just blood relations. It depends upon the makeup of your family and what you are trying to accomplish.
Creating the Family Tree
There are many ways to construct the tree itself. Younger or more artistic children may want to make their genealogical project look like an actual tree. Older or more analytical students may choose to make a geometric diagram — with or without art. Here are a few ideas.
- Trace your student’s arm and hand on brown construction paper. Cut this out and make it the trunk of the tree. Using colored paper, trace your child’s hand(s). Cut these out and use as leaves. Paste the tree and leaves onto a larger piece of paper. On each leaf, print the name and relation of each family member. Photos may be glued onto the handprints, or the child may want to draw pictures.
- Another option would be to use markers, crayons, paint or colored pencils to draw the tree and hands after you trace them.
- Draw or paint a tree trunk on a large piece of paper. Put washable paint on your child’s hand and let them press their handprint “leaves” around the tree trunk. As with the other examples, each handprint will represent a family member.
- Instead of using handprints for leaves on the tree you draw or paint, your child might prefer to dip his or her fingers into washable paint and make fingerprint leaves to use as a backdrop. Your child may then either write people’s names on squares or circles of paper, or use photos, and glue them onto their fingerprint family tree.
- Rather than make an actual tree, you might choose to do a geometric chart, with rectangles, circles, ovals or simply just lines for each family member’s information. You can always add branches and leaves or other decorations to the chart to make it a bit more interesting.
- Download a template from the internet and fill it in. This will be an easy way to create an artistic family tree, but it also has limitations on the number of family members you may include.
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve designed and created the basic family tree, start filling in the information. Remember the farther back you go in history and the more information you choose to include the more room you will need. You might find you need to use a roll of craft paper or poster board to fit it all on, or it might just fit on a standard sheet of paper. More complex charts may be better suited for a digital method.
If you decide to do some detective work and include geography, you may want to add a map or drawing of locations. Or maybe your students found photos of relatives that look a lot like them that they want to include so they may call out similar characteristics.
To add some writing to the project, you might have them create a history of how your family got to California or America. They might even want to do a creative writing assignment and come up with an historical fiction story based on something they discovered about their lineage. These may either be included on the actual chart or be a separate attachment.
The next time your family gathers — in person or virtually — have your students do some show and tell. They might want to just explain the family tree or share stories or other fun facts they learned. If they choose to try some food, have them make enough to share with everyone or tell which was their favorite and why. There are many ways to include public speaking or reporting with this type of project.
The Most Important Part of the Family Tree Project: Having Fun
Although building a family tree may be used to teach children a variety of subjects, the most important thing to remember is to have fun. There are no right or wrong ways to do this project. Let the children help guide the process. This will help them to relax and enjoy the learning process. Not only will the be gaining valuable insight into their own history, they will also learn how they fit into the family and the world around them. Another extremely important takeaway from the family tree lesson is how the things they learn while homeschooling apply to the rest of their lives.
Have fun sleuthing and Happy Holidays!