October has been designated as Family History Month, and in my mind, it’s not hard to see why those promoting this designation picked a month so close to the winter holidays. Regardless of what holy days you observe in November or December, it’s likely there’s an emphasis on family and connection and tradition. It’s really easy to use that anticipatory energy to kick-start a family history project this month, and have it continue on as you’re hanging your decorations or listening to your favorite seasonal tunes.
To celebrate Family History Month, I’ve rounded up a sampler of projects that families, no matter the ages of the members nor the structure of the clan, can work on together and enjoy the end result.
The All-Ages Guide To Family History Month Projects
1. One of the most basic “before the project” projects you can work on is to organize your family photos. This is especially useful if you have boxes of loose paper photos, but even if you have already digitized your archives, it can pay dividends.
Kids, especially older ones, can help you sort images and research the images by asking older relatives about them. Everyone can collaborate on captions once the facts are known. The image collections, once organized, can serve as the backbone of a special photo album or a scrapbook, illustrations for a personal history memoir, supplemental photos for a video biography, and so forth.
If you don’t know where to start, and are freaked out at the prospect of organizing thousands of photos, WNYC recently published a guide to decluttering your photos.
2. If your family has a strong tradition around food, consider producing a heritage cookbook. Many years ago, my partner did this, rescuing her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes from obscurity in a box of index cards and reproducing them (along with her foremothers’ unique preparation instructions) in a mess-proof three-ring binder format. We still enjoy her grandmother’s special fudge cake icing because she made the effort to preserve the recipe.
The options for involving the family are rich and varied. Kids can help you interview relatives about their favorite recipes, cook simple dishes, and/or serve as “taste testers.” If you’re getting together with the extended family for the holidays or a reunion, the cookbook could make a nice take-home gift, and could influence the menu at the happening, as well!
3. Don’t forget your left-brained loved ones! Not every family history product has to be a book, video, audio or illustration. Given that time is linear, and every family has a mountain of data associated with it, there are lots of ways that analytic types, no matter their age, can bring clarity and insight to the narrative of your group:
- Filling out a family tree form is a task that might delight a detail-oriented person.
- A timeline of significant family events could make all those dates written in the family Bible come to life in a new way.
- If your left-brained relative helped you organize the photos earlier, maybe he or she can ensure they are stored in files with naming conventions that make them easy to find.
- Infographics are a new, often entertaining, way to represent data sets. An analytical type could take the lead in collecting the facts and presenting them in a meaningful way to your other relatives.
4. History by hand. Two interesting ways to introduce youngsters to the extended family are to have them collect “autographs” and organize them by what part of the family the signers are from. Or they can collect memories on index cards or the favorite quotes of relatives. The under-5 crowd might enjoy pursuing this goal by creating a thumbprint tree. (Here’s a template to inspire you.)
5. Conduct an “Interview With An Ancestor.” We often think we know more than we actually do about previous generations, until our children and grandkids ask us something about them that stumps us.
Families can collaborate on an “Interview With An Ancestor” by pooling what they know about older family members (living or dead). Kids can interview their parents about the child’s grandparents and great-grandparents, or talk to the elder directly, if he or she is still alive. Adults can write down what they know about their parents and other members of previous generations, then start to fill in gaps with research of public records and other sources. The end results could be presented in the form of an actual interview with the family predecessor, or as a first-person journal of discovery.
6. Create a family epic. If you already know a great deal about your family history, or want to highlight a segment involving living family members, try casting it in the mold of classic stories – adventures, romances, war stories, road trips, etc. You can produce your epic in whatever format works best: a video, podcast, slide show, narrated home movies, graphic novel, book, etc.
Since often kids are closer to the thrill of epic storytelling than adults, you may find that your little ones are excited to play a variety of roles during the process, including interviewers, story consultants, costume designers, actors during historical reenactments, etc. You may also find that when it comes time to debut your epic, you may have an audience beyond your family who wants to attend!