Family Fun with Genealogy


If the suggestion “Let’s do our genealogy” is met with glassy-eyed expressions at your house, why not try some of the following suggestions that can make genealogy fun?

Remember, the essence of genealogy is binding the past to the present. Only one facet involves huddling over a microfilm reader and searching through hard-to-read documents in a musty courthouse (activities, by the way, that some genealogists have a special liking for). There are countless other ways to acquaint your family members with their ancestors. Begin by analyzing your family’s special skills and interests. Take into consideration their age levels. Then approach the activities you select with enthusiasm—and you will soon find your family members developing new talents and growing closer to each other as you learn and work together.

1. A family member with an artistic flair would probably enjoy designing a family tree for your family-room or living-room wall. It could be done in oils, acrylics, felt, or embroidery, and could be styled to reflect your family’s ethnic heritage.

2. Pool your musical talents and collaborate in writing a ballad—a simple song—telling the story of a prominent (or not-so-prominent) progenitor. If the song has a rousing chorus, it will quickly become a theme song for the family, and new verses can be added over the years. Family ballads are great for giving sparkle to family reunions.

3. Family dramatists can star on Sunday afternoons and at reunions in skits based on family history. Even reenacting the day grandma and grandpa met can be fun. Invite them to see the play and be sure to give them a chance to tell the story the way it really happened.

4. Learn a heritage craft to gain a greater appreciation for the life-style of your pioneer forefathers and mothers. Woodworking, shingle-making, spinning, weaving, and quilting were important parts of their lives.

5. Establish a family newsletter. Newsletter production, even for a once-a-year edition, includes many activities—writing questionnaires to be sent to cousins, recording their replies, writing articles and histories, typing up copy, illustrating stories, designing layout, dealing with printers, lettering a masthead, and drawing maps. Family members are sure to find some part of the project that will interest them.

In addition to increasing the involvement of your immediate family, a newsletter will be an excellent means of helping distant cousins get acquainted. If you have no family organization yet, the newsletter can begin recording an ongoing family genealogy—births, deaths, and marriages. As time passes, arrangements can be made through the newsletter for extended family members to share in research and to become part of an official organization.

6. History will be much more interesting to the student who realizes he has an ancestor who was involved in events being studied. A “You Are There” effect occurs when students link their studies with the migrations of ancestors and understand how depressions, famines, industrial development, religious movements, and land grants affect the lives of real people.

7. Sometimes children appreciate genealogy more if they realize their friends think it is interesting too. Now that searching for “roots” has become popular among young people, schools are often interested in community volunteers who can sponsor clubs or give knowledgeable presentations. Volunteering your time in the community can sometimes increase interest at home.

Community awareness groups often sponsor historic preservation projects. Even if such a project doesn’t involve a building or a site in which your ancestors figured, participation can help family members develop an awareness of history.

8. The Boy Scouts of America have a genealogy merit badge designed to acquaint boys with the basics of genealogy and give them a taste of the thrill of research. Encourage the Scouts in your family to work for this badge. If there are experienced genealogists in your family, encourage them to volunteer to be a genealogy merit badge counselor.

9. Encourage family members to keep journals. Sundays are a good time for making weekly entries. Remember to make it a family rule that each person’s journal is private and must not be read without the owner’s permission.

If your children are too young to keep journals themselves, you can start a notebook for them. Use plastic protector sheets to preserve birth certificates, blessing and baptism certificates, and other important papers. Ask your young child to tell about an event in his own words and write it down for him. Each year on the child’s birthday write a short history of the preceding year, recalling the child’s growth and recording amusing anecdotes so quickly forgotten otherwise. (A bonus effect of such a record is the sense of self-worth a child develops knowing “I have a book about me.”)

Such notebooks or journals take many forms. A mother in Westchester County, New York, kept a scrapbook of her son’s life from the time he was very young and presented it to him on his wedding day. It became a family treasure.

But if you are encouraging your family to keep a journal, you must set the example. Begin right now if you haven’t already started.

10. Oral histories are natural family projects for Sunday afternoons. The younger generation seems to have a knack for getting grandparents and great-grandparents to talk. Oldsters, sparked by a fresh audience, often tell those old stories better than ever before. Remember when tape recording to let the person being interviewed do the talking. Try not to interrupt. Have a list of questions ready to ask in case there is a lull in the conversation, and take along some old photographs for the person to identify and tell about.

11. Turning the names and dates on a family group sheet into a brief written history can be one of the most enlightening things you and your family have ever done. Your family members can work together almost like detectives to figure out the story behind the dry facts on the chart. Writing out such histories will turn your ancestors into real people. Putting names and dates into story form may even make you realize things you didn’t think of before. You may see gaps in the research, and you may be prompted to complete the story by writing for information.

If you happen to have other stories from an oral history or a journal to round out the history, so much the better. But don’t romanticize. Put down only what you know to be fact. If you include a family tradition, be sure to label it as such. When you are finished, have a family member type it up in an attractive, neat form and send copies to all of your cousins. They will love it.

Or, instead of concentrating on an individual, you might find it interesting to study a particular era and learn all you can about that time period. Different family members can research areas that interest them—such as economics, politics, fashions, or land dealings—and then share their findings with each other. Write up these findings and attach them to histories of ancestors who lived in that time period.

12. Enroll with a son or daughter in genealogy and history classes or seminars offered at libraries, historical societies, and community colleges. You will both grow in your genealogical ability, and your chats on the way to and from classes will be an added benefit.

13. Have the family photo buff make copies of old portraits. He could also prepare picture pedigree charts, select photos to illustrate family histories, and display old family photographs in antique frames.

14. Even young children can go to cemeteries when you are looking for tombstone records. You can develop a closeness to those who have died by reading their names, figuring out their age at death, and puzzling over inscriptions too worn to decipher. Making rubbings of inscriptions can also be fun.

Check with a historical society in your area to see if gravestone inscriptions at a local cemetery have been recorded and published. If not, copying them would make an important and worthwhile family project. The historical society will suggest the methods you should follow to ensure accuracy. (See also Terry J. Moyer, “An Author Card for Cindie,” New Era, May 1981, p. 14; and Janet Peterson, “Cemetery Impressions,” Friend, Nov. 1982, p. 30.)

15. Give some of your more willing family members a taste of doing nitty-gritty research. I remember being plopped down in front of a microfilm reader in a dark corner of the Newberry Library in Chicago before I was twelve, and being told to read the 1850 census for Johnson County, Illinois. I had to keep running back and forth to my mother for help in reading the old handwriting. She didn’t accomplish much research that day, but she planted in me seeds of love for research.

16. Genealogical research often requires a great deal of letter writing. Family members can help send for birth and death certificates, and everyone can share the excitement of receiving letters that bring new information.

17. Another way to give children a taste of genealogical fun is to plan vacations to visit important places in family history or to become acquainted with relatives and distant cousins. Take photographs, make tapes, and investigate family legends.

If you approach genealogy “line upon line, here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10), your family will grow in understanding and appreciation of this important gospel principle. And you will have taken what may be your first steps toward turning the hearts of your children to their fathers. (See D&C 2.)

[photos] Photography by Marty Mayo

Ginger Hamer, mother of five, serves as president of the Minnesota Genealogical Society. She is a member of the Bloomington Ward, Minneapolis Minnesota Stake.