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A cross-curricular theme unit with activities, reproducibles, and tips for learning about families

Grades 2–3

Teaching About Families

By Dolores Choat

These days, units on the family can include many fun activities — but making the traditional family tree isn't one of them. Families come in so many configurations that 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. The following activities, focusing on family structure, members, homes, and history, encourage children to be proud of their families-no matter what family means to them.

Button Brood
To help students understand that families come in all shapes and sizes, I 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 or have two holes, but be different shapes and sizes.

Animal Clans
Another way I introduce the concept of many types of families is by discussing animal families. For example, we discover that seahorse and Emperor penguin fathers — not mothers — nurture and protect the eggs. We 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. Students can think about the ways in which the traits of these animal families compare to those of human families.

Family Circle
When talking about students' families, I like to reinforce the idea that differences don't mean better or worse. I 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. Then, we discuss the many kinds of families that exist. Individually, students create a 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, we discuss the many types of families that are represented in our 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 two 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 members' shapes. Students can then create graphs of these results and, as a class, we determine if there are more squares or rectangles among students' families.

Mobile Families
This project gets my students thinking positively about the members of their families. I provide each student with one coat hanger labeled with his or her name, along with yarn and construction or drawing paper. Then students draw and cut out faces of their family members. On the reverse side of these drawings, I have students describe each family member positively. These drawings can be attached to the hanger with yarn in any arrangement students choose.

Family Trait Chart
I 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, my students choose birthdays; relative heights and sizes; favorite/least favorite colors, foods, and sports; and quirky abilities, such as tongue-rolling. Students compile the information about their families and create their charts, listing their family members down the left side, categories along the top, and findings in the appropriate places. Once students complete the charts, they can determine if there are patterns in family traits.

Family Snapshots
If possible, provide your students with a Polaroid cameras and film and have them take turns taking pictures for "A Day/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.

Family Recipes
My students learn a lot about family customs with this activity. They ask parents about a special family recipe, preferably one made for a family celebration or holiday. Then they write a story about the recipe, its history, when, how, and why it's made, and so on. Students can share these recipes and stories with the class. This is a great time to discuss different family traditions and holidays.

How to Make a Family Quilt
My class celebrates family by creating paper family quilts that highlight all family members — or as many as each student chooses to include. You can reproduce and use the Quilt Square Master for this activity, providing your students with as many squares as needed (this will depend on the number of people in each student's family). You can use the Quilt Square Master as is or have students cut out the shapes and create their own quilt square pattern. In the center square, students can draw a portrait of a member of the family — pets included — and on the surrounding shapes, place special information about that family member. Students can include information, such as special memories of that family member, where and when the person was born, when that person became part of the family, and so on. When the squares are complete, students can tape them together and add "stitches" with black felt-tip pen.

Express Mail
Students can send specially made "Thinking of You" cards to elderly family members, neighbors, or friends. I use this as an opportunity to discuss the changes aging can bring about and start students sharing information about the oldest members of their families.

Window Box Families
This activity is a student favorite. Kids 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:

  1. Give each student a sheet of paper.
  2. Have students fold the paper in half horizontally, like a card.
  3. Ask students to unfold the paper. On one inside half, they should draw family pictures, including all 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.
  4. Next, students refold the paper and outline boxes — windows — that will frame their family members.
  5. They then cut three sides of the window outlines so that each can be folded back to reveal the faces of family members.

Students can make more than one window box drawing if they live in more than one place (such as father's and mother's homes in the case of shared custody after a divorce).

Writing About Grandpa
Grandpa Loved (Simon and Schuster, 1989), the award-winning book by Josephine Nobisso, celebrates the relationship between a child and his grandfather. You might want to share the following information with your students before handing out the Meet a Mentor reproducible about Josephine. 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. "One grandfather died just before I was born, the other passed away when I was just an infant," she says. Then why did Josephine choose a grandfather as the book's central character? "The book takes us to four different landscapes I love: the sea, the forest, the city, and the family," she explains. "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."


"Children this age begin to move from the family-oriented stage of development into the rough-and-tumble world of peer relationships." — Stanley Greenspan, MD, Playground Politics (Addison-Wesley, 1993)

"A simple newsletter can help families bond with the classroom. Use the last five minutes of each school day to recap with students what they did that day. Record their ideas onto a single piece of paper; copy and send home each Friday." — Kathy Faggella, co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (Ideas Are Popping, 1994)

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