By Audrey Schewe
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(CNN) -- Searching for the perfect present for your children, one that won't get shoved in a closet or cost a fortune? Hoping to engage your children in activities other than video games and television over their winter break? Look no further than those piles of shoe boxes bursting with old photographs. This holiday season give kids the gift that they will treasure for a lifetime -- a family history.
"Family history is about stories, not necessarily who married whom and all the way back," says Maureen Taylor, noted genealogist and author of a guide to family history for kids, "Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors."
"Families today are pretty disconnected," says Taylor. "It is important for kids to have that sense of connectedness to everyone else, at a point where many kids and teenagers are feeling quite alienated. It is important for kids to know where they fit in."
Experts are quick to point out that while those family trees that everyone creates on poster board at least once for a school project are good for tracing linear heritage, it's the stories about those ancestors that really give us a sense of who we are.
"The family history will give you background information to help you understand you and your family," says professional genealogist Mike Brubaker. "It helps us to understand our lives."
Brubaker suggests that during the holidays children should simply sit down and talk to the oldest members of the family, asking open-ended questions, instead of those that elicit a yes or no.
Questions such as, "What were the holidays like when you were growing up?" "When you were my age, what kinds of presents did you receive?" "What foods did you eat when you were my age?" and "What were your favorite, or least favorite foods?" can draw out the details about family life, says Brubaker.
If memories need some jarring, Monica Schifsky, Global Product Marketing Manager for Creative Memories, recommends pulling out the old photos.
"That will have people talking as they start to remember," she says. "Oh, I remember this! And they'll start talking. And then write those stories down so that you have stories to go with your photos."
Schifsky advises, when possible, recording the dates and locations of the photos. However, she adds that while the dates and places are important for placing the events in historical and geographical context, "In the end, those facts are not as meaningful as descriptive, evocative stories about the events."
Family histories for all ages
Since children as young as pre-K are introduced to the concept of family trees in school, genealogists agree that it is never too early to ignite an interest in family history.
Taylor works with children as young as second grade to create simple family trees or charts. But give the kids a wealth of art supplies, she says, and kids will come up with their own creative expressions.
"One child came up with boats on the ocean being the older members of the family, footprints on the beach were the kids and the clouds in the sky were the deceased members of the family."
Older children can be encouraged to conduct oral histories with simple tape recorders or video cameras, says Brubaker.
"When doing oral histories, young people can ask anything that they would want to know about growing up in another time," he says. For example, "What was school like? What games did you play? What music did you like? What kinds of clothes did you wear?"
Since teenagers who are taking American history and World history in school have a much greater sense of history, Taylor proposes that this age group make timelines of their family histories and then add in the corresponding historical events. Oral histories can then be used to breathe life into the timelines.
Digging deeper into family history requires some investigation. But as Brubaker points out, there are many resources available, such as the Social Security Death Index, obituary or marriage listings from local newspapers, and U.S. census data, which can be found online in local libraries across the country.
Organizing the information
After the photographs and stories have been collected, they need to be organized and shared with family members.
"It really depends on what your collection of family photos is as to how you choose to organize your family history," says Schifsky.
One way to organize the family history is by topic.
"Many families take pictures while on vacation," adds Schifsky. " 'Vacations Through the Years' becomes a heritage album."
Others may choose to devote one page of a family history to each person they research. For example, assigning one page for their mother, one page for their father, one page for their mother's mother, one page for their mother's father, etc.
"The neat thing about family histories is that it is your project. There is no right or wrong to a project like this," says Brubaker. "Just explore what you can."
And while not everyone can trace his or her ancestors back to the Mayflower, Taylor stresses that whether it's a recipe for sweet potato pie or a story about cherished toy, every child can find a family history to record.
"Kids don't need to worry about tracing their family tree and worry about how they don't fit in with everyone else," says Taylor. "They should think of themselves as unique, because every family is unique."
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