Summer and family reunions are just around the corner! Sharing family history has long been on the agenda of many family reunions. The idea of family history at a reunion can sound boring to some, but there are ways to incorporate family history into any reunion that will be fun for family members of all ages.
A few years ago I got really brave and planned a family reunion focused entirely on celebrating our family’s history. Ancestors on both sides of my family settled in Parowan, Utah, and the town is rich with evidence of their lives. We gathered for three days, and by the end of our time there, even the most skeptical family member admitted that it had been a lot of fun. A family history themed reunion may not be on your agenda this year, but you can incorporate some family history into any reunion’s itinerary with a little extra thought. Here are a few ideas from our reunion to help you get started.
Cemetery Scavenger Hunt
For the adults and teens, I created a sheet of instructions that, along with giving one point for each family member found, gave extra points for finding someone who was born or died on your birthday, someone who has the same name as you, and extra points for answering some trivia questions. Prior to the reunion, I had generated QR codes using an online QR code generator that linked to pages on a Family Reunion website that I created just for this event. I had web pages for seven of our more “famous” (or infamous) ancestors that were buried in the Parowan Cemetery. The morning of the Scavenger hunt, my husband and I walked through the cemetery and put the QR codes (laminated cards mounted on bamboo skewers to stake in the grass) in front of each of the seven headstones. Whenever family members found a QR code during the scavenger hunt, they scanned it with their smartphones, which took them to the page where they could see a photo of the ancestor, read a short paragraph about their lives, and answer one of the questions on the scavenger hunt list.
I thought one hour would be plenty of time for this activity, but after an hour, everyone protested that they weren’t finished yet and wanted to keep going. At the end we gave small prizes to each of the children under 12, and a grand prize to my 16-year old nephew, who got the most points on the adult/teen scavenger hunt.
Ancestor Bingo Night and Free Template
A Bingo Night is another great Family Reunion activity. Create bingo cards with ancestor pictures on them. Print 4 x 6″ photos to use as the “calling cards.” Family members will become familiar with the faces of their ancestors as they play, and if you want, you could share one or two sentences about each ancestor as everyone is looking to see if that ancestor is on their card. We used Cheerios as markers and had dollar-store toys and candy for prizes to be given out anytime someone got a Bingo.
The templates I used are no longer available, so I’ve created a new Bingo template for you using Canva, a free online design website. Access the free template and instructions here.
This is another fun storytelling activity. Each family was assigned to come up with a creative way to share about an ancestor. My sister’s family made a video about their ancestor’s life. Her kids had so much fun portraying the people in the story, and we had fun watching their video. Our family was assigned an ancestral couple, and we chose a “He Says/She Says” game to share their story. I wore an apron and my husband wore a straw hat. One of my daughters read a statement, and if the rest of the family thought it was about Grandma, they would hold up a small picture of an apron. If it was about Grandpa, they would hold up a picture of a hat. The younger kids really loved this game that helped them learn a little more about their great-grandparents. It was fun to see the creative ideas everyone came up with to share their stories.
After the activity, we talked about the following quote from Hannah Senesh and the idea that our ancestors are our stars:
There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.
We ended the night with a stargazing party on the lawn.
Gather in a Place That is Historically Significant to Your Family.
Our 3x Great-Grandmother, Paulina Lyman, was a midwife in Parowan. When she was in her 60s, she traveled to Salt Lake City to take an advanced course in obstetrics. Her services in the medical field were not confined to maternity cases. She also became a general practitioner, even to the extent of setting broken bones. She was the first in Parowan to use disinfectants. At a time when vaccination was frowned upon by many who thought it would leave the patient with some disability, she procured smallpox vaccine and injected nearly every resident of Parowan during a smallpox epidemic that was sweeping the country. She was a legend in her time, and as proof of that, there is a statue of her in the city park. We gathered there to tell her story and take a family photo.
What places are significant to your family? There may not be a statue commemorating your ancestor, but there are local veteran’s memorials, ancestor workplaces, family farms, churches, schools, favorite local lakes and campsites. When you go to that significant place, tell the story and take a picture!
Family History is About Living People Too
Make sure your kids understand that family history is not only about dead people. It’s also about the stories of those that are still living. Plan activities that will help them know more about what you did when you were their age.
Everyone Has a Story
An evening of storytelling is a fun family reunion activity. Why not let every family member participate? Create a jar of questions, then let each person pull a question out of the jar. Every family member will take a turn to share a part of their story by answering the question they received. This activity not only helps everyone get to know each other better, it also helps kids gain a sense that their story matters.
Family Photo Puzzle Challenge
If your family enjoys jigsaw puzzles, there are many online companies that will create puzzles from photos. Choose a few old family photos and order the puzzles. Then, when it’s time for the puzzle challenge, split participants up into teams. Make sure each team has a good mix of adults and children. You will need to provide a table large enough for teams to complete their puzzles on. A dining room table, a kitchen island, or card tables work great. Have the teams race to see who can complete their puzzle first. Our family had fun discussing hairstyle and clothing choices, cute or funny expressions on kids’ faces, and what was going on at the time the photograph was taken. Of course the added element of competition makes everything more fun! Give the winning team a prize, then consider sending the puzzles home with Grandpa and Grandma so the grandkids can continue to enjoy putting the puzzles together at Grandma’s house for years to come.
Play Games You Used to Play
What kind of games did you and your siblings play as kids? What games did Grandma and Grandpa play? Do the children and teens in your family know how to play these games? My younger siblings played Kick the Can all the time with their friends. As part of the reunion we taught all the kids how to play. It was simple, required no preparation, and everyone had a great time.
Go Places You Used to Go
Every summer of my growing-up years, we gathered with my uncle’s family for an “Early Morning Breakfast” in the mountains. We’d cook pancakes, eggs, sausage, and bacon. After breakfast, the kids and teens would climb whatever hill or mountain was nearby while the “old folks” sat around talking and napping. We were excited to re-create this experience for our kids. Unfortunately, there was a major wildfire in the mountains near Parowan during our reunion, so we ended up in the local park. Not exactly what we planned, but it was fun nonetheless. Simply planning an activity that you did when you were young opens the door for telling family stories and sharing memories with your children.
Knowing Your Family’s History Fosters Resilience
The value in all of these activities is more than simply helping your kids learn about their ancestors. A 2001 study by Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush at Emory University showed that “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. ” Creating a family narrative that is passed down for generations is a valuable endeavor. How will you incorporate sharing your family’s story into your next family reunion?