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

Grades K–1

Teaching About Families

By Ruth Bilbe & Naomi Kornman
Family is a topic that fits anytime, anyplace into the school curriculum. Kindergarten teachers Ruth Bilbe and Naomi Kornman make a cross-curricular family unit a staple in their classroom at Newman School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here, Ruth and Naomi peek into their plan books and share the best of their family activities.

Button Broods

To help show that families come in all shapes and sizes, we turn students loose on our button collection and ask them to find buttons that match in some way. Students put these buttons together into families and glue them onto cutout construction-paper houses. Then they describe what makes their buttons a family (for example, the same color and two holes, despite different shapes and sizes).

Families on Display

Animal Families

Young children love learning about animal families. Using books and nature magazines, we learn about what animal family groups are called (herd, litter, and so on) as well as animal baby names (such as cub and foal). We also explore animal family behaviors (how animals live together and how they care for their young) and compare these with human behaviors. We then invite children to create their own picture books about animal families.

The Family in Art

Our public library has several collections of fine-art prints and illustrations featuring families. Some good resources include A Child's Book of Art: Great Pictures First Words selected by Lucy Micklethwait (Dorling Kindersley,1993) and I Spy: An Alphabet in Art (Greenwillow, 1992) devised and selected by Lucy Micklethwait. We use the prints as we would wordless picture books, having children imagine what the subjects are saying, doing, thinking, or planning. Then we invite children to each bring in a small collection of family photos to refer to as they paint portraits of their own families.

Meet Your Ancestors

When children are ready to turn their attention to their family's history, we begin by reading books such as Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson (Dutton, 1985). Then we have the whole class collaborate to create Our Map of Family Places, starting with the reproducible Where We've Been in this theme unit. To make your own map, photocopy and distribute the reproducible. Ask kids take to have a family member help them fill out the page, which asks about family moves and memories. We invite our students to share their completed reproducible pages in class. Then we gather around a large wall map of the world and help children use push pins to mark their families' places of origin and patterns of movement. We connect the pins with lengths of yarn and use sticky notes to label and date these moves. We ask children to notice details about our class map, such as which family traveled the farthest, which one made the most moves, and so on. Then we make a list of important family places and post nearby. Over the course of the year, we help children track down more information about those places. We also like to invite family members in to the classroom to tell about their family's history and important places (we find that providing copies of the Where We've Been pages can help these speakers shape their presentations).

A Family Vacation

One of our favorite books for reading aloud is The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant (Bradbury Press, 1985). After the story, we ask children to talk about times they've traveled with family or had family visiting them. We invite children to bring in souvenirs, postcards, or photos from these times. Then we brainstorm a list of year-round, no-travel family "vacations" (such as vacant-lot nature walks, living room campouts, and so on). We've even tried a few of these with our classroom family!

Family Graphs

Here are two ways our students graph family information:

  1. Turn a piece of graph paper horizontally. Print the letters of the alphabet along the bottom (one letter per square). Make one copy of this page for each child. At the top of the page, help each child print the names of his or her family members. Then, have children create name bar graphs by coloring in one square above each letter that appears in each name until all the names have been graphed. Finally, help children to count and record the total number of letters represented in their family members' names.
  2. Read How Many Feet in the Bed? by Diane Johnston Hamm (Simon and Schuster, 1991). Then use the reproducible My Family Counts! page to create family counting wheels. Mount copies of the wheel onto construction paper. Have children take copies of the wheel home so they may count and total the number of family member's body parts as directed on each wedge of the wheel. Back in class, help children calculate their own grand totals and those of the class. (This activity is great for teaching kids how to skip-count by twos, fives, and tens.)

A House Is a House...

Our students love the book A House Is a House for Me by Mary Ann Hoberman (Penguin,1978). For a fun interactive chart to go along with the activity, we draw an large house shape on butcher paper (approximately 4-by-7feet), then laminate it so it can be reused. Together with our students, we make a list of various household things (such as cups and shoes) that can serve as houses for other things. Then we offer children blank index cards so they can illustrate their ideas and tape them directly onto the house. (We find that it helps to encourage children to "color to the edges of the cards" so that their pictures will not appear too small.) We help each child label their cards by completing for each one the line "A is a house for a ..."

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."

Family Celebrations

We like to culminate our unit on family with fun-filled get-togethers like these.
  • Sibling Celebration: Have children prepare invitations asking their siblings to join them in class or at recess. Siblings can team up to present puppet shows, do readings of favorite poems, or share memories about each other.

  • Film Festival: Have children bring family videos to view together in school. Ask each child to act a narrator for his or her family's film. Use the opportunity to explore family roles and relationship labels (cousins, aunts, great-grandparents, step-parents, and so on). Point out how we all often assume more than one role in a family (for example, a boy can be a son, a brother, a cousin, a nephew, and a grandson at the same time).
  • Family Food Fair: Invite family members to share favorite recipes at a taste-testing feast. As your students and guests sample the fare, read the book Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley (Carolrhoda, 1991). Then ask family members to take turns describing the origins and meanings of their family recipes and the occasions on which the dish is served in their homes. Afterwards, ask the family members to write out their recipes and have your students illustrate them. Make copies of these recipes and bind them together to create your own classroom Family Cookbook. Give each student one copy of the cookbook to take home.


"For me, the youngest child of hard-working immigrant parents, the family was warmth, safety, comfort –– total security. It was from my teachers that I discovered who I was and who I could become."
–– Adele Faber, co-author, How To Talk So Kids Can Learn At Home and In School (Rawson Associates, 1995)

"Don't underestimate the power of a simple newsletter for helping families bond with the classroom. Try using 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)

"Family is the developmental anchor for five and six year olds. Clear family routines, schedules, and expectations create the safe harbor these young children need so much."

–– Chip Wood, co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children and author of Yardsticks (NEFC, 1994)

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