These days, units on the family can include many fun classroom activities, but having children make the traditional family tree is usually no longer one of them. Families come in so many configurations that I feel a tree is no longer a workable way to think about families. In my classroom, I've discovered that family activities need to be broader and more accepting of the many types of families my students come from. I begin by distributing the Family Celebration Reproducible (PDF), below, to students, for them to take home and share with their families. Then we do the following activities, focusing on family structure, members, homes, and history. In all things, I encourage children to be proud of their families — no matter what the word family means to them.
To help students understand that families come in all shapes and sizes, start off with an activity where students create "button families." They can find buttons that match in some way, put them together into families, and glue them in a house made from construction paper. Once students have created their families, they can compare their button family members — the buttons may be the same color, number of holes, shape, or sizes. Give each student a chance to share how the buttons in his or her "family" are related.
Another way to introduce the concept of many types of families is by discussing animal families. For example, you can reveal that seahorse and Emperor penguin fathers — not mothers — nurture and protect the eggs. Go on to discuss other family structures found in the animal world, including young that are cared for by extended family members, animals that live alone, and "single-parent" families. Then invite students to think about the ways in which the traits of these animal families compare to those of human families.
When talking about students' families, reinforce the idea that differences don't mean better or worse. Begin by having students compare their eyes, hair, heights, and other attributes. Students can discuss the fact that these differences don't affect whether we like each other, and that none of these attributes are right or wrong. Talk about some of the many kinds of families that exist, then invite students to create an individual Family Circle diagram, with themselves in a center circle and other family members on "rays" that emanate out. Students can include whomever they wish — people who live in primary and secondary residences as well as those who don't. After they complete their diagrams, have students share their work, then discuss all the many types of families that are represented in your class.
The Shape of Families
This activity also reinforces the "no right or wrong family" concept. On separate pieces of paper, draw a large rectangle and a large square. Make photocopies and give one rectangle and one square to each student to take home, along with several long pieces of string. Ask students to measure each of their family members from the tip of the middle finger on the left hand to the tip of the middle finger on the right hand, then from the bottom of the feet to the top of the head. If the measurements are the same, the family member is a square. If the lengths are different, the family member is a rectangle. On the sheets, students record all of their family's shapes, then create graphs of these results. Later, as a class, determine if there are more squares or rectangles among students' families.
This project gets students thinking positively about the members of their families. Provide each student with one coat hanger labeled with his or her name, along with yarn and construction or drawing paper. Then have students draw and cut out faces of their family members. On the reverse side of these drawings, have students describe each family member positively. Invite students to attach their drawings to the hanger with yarn in any arrangement they choose.
Family Trait Charts
Start this activity by asking students to think about the different kinds of facts that add up to a description of their family members. Often, students will choose birthdays; relative heights and sizes; favorite/least favorite colors, foods, and sports; and quirky abilities, such as tongue-rolling. Have students compile the information about their families and create their charts, listing their family members down the left side, categories along the top, and their findings in the appropriate places. Once students complete the charts, have them determine if there are patterns in family traits.
If possible, provide students with a Polaroid camera and film and have them take turns taking pictures for "A Day (or Week) In the Life of My Family" display. Students can photograph their family members, homes, and activities during this day/week. If you don't have access to cameras, students can keep a family journal, which can be presented in a storyboard or cartoon format.
Students can learn a lot about family customs with this activity. Invite them to ask their parents about a special family recipe, preferably one made for a family celebration or holiday. Then ask them write a story about the recipe; its history; when, how, and why it's made; and so on. Have students share their recipes and stories with the class, or even bring in a sample of the recipe to share. This is also great time to discuss different family traditions and holidays.
Celebrate family in your classroom by creating paper family "quilts" that highlight all family members — or as many as each student chooses to include. For this activity, distribute the Quilt Square Master Reproducible (PDF), below, providing students with as many squares as needed. You can use the reproducible as is, or have students cut out the shapes and create their own quilt square pattern. In the center square, invite students to draw a portrait of a member of the family (even a pet), and on the surrounding shapes, place special information about that chosen family member. Students can include special memories, where and when the family member was born, when that person (or pet) became part of the family, and so on. When the squares are complete, have students tape them together and add "stitches" with black felt-tip pen.
Encourage students to send specially made "Thinking of You" cards to elderly family members, neighbors, or friends. Use this activity as an opportunity to discuss the different kinds of changes that a person's aging can bring about, and start students sharing information about the oldest members of their families.
This activity will become a student favorite! Invite your students to create drawings of their families and rooms in their homes, then incorporate special "windows" (like in an Advent calendar) that highlight each family member. Here's how:
First, give each student a sheet of paper. Have students fold their pages in half horizontally, like a card, then unfold. On the inside half of the page, have students draw family pictures, including family members and pets. The setting for each drawing should be a room in the home; students should incorporate as much detail about the room as they can. Next, students refold the page and outline boxes (windows) that will frame their family drawings. Next, show students how to cut three sides of their window outlines so that each can be folded back to reveal their family members. (Invite students who live in more than one place — such as a father's and mother's homes in the case of shared custody after a divorce — to make more than one window-box drawing to show both of these families.
Writing About Grandpa
Grandpa Loved, the award-winning book by Josephine Nobisso, celebrates the relationship between a child and his grandfather. Read this book aloud to students before distributing the Meet a Mentor Reproducible (PDF), below. Then invite students to share feelings about their own grandparents. Despite the book's poignant, believable story line, Josephine herself grew up not knowing her own grandfathers. After explaining this to students, ask them to share why they think Josephine chose a grandfather as the book's central character. Then read Josephine's own words about her experience to your students:
"One grandfather died just before I was born, the other passed away when I was just an infant," she says. "(My) book takes us to four different landscapes I love: the sea, the forest, the city, and the family. There's always a sense of nostalgia when I'm in one and not the other. I thought, 'Who else to bring to the places I miss the most than someone I most miss?' My grandfathers were alive for me even though I never had them in the flesh. My family still accorded them the love and respect as if they had been alive. And just as the grandfather in the book will forever live on in the boy's heart, my grandfathers will be with me always."
Dolores Choat is a veteran third-grade teacher from Chickasha, OK. This article, originally published in the November/December 1995 issue of Instructor, has been exclusively adapted and updated for Instructor Online, © 2003.