Teaching Preschoolers the Concept of Family

by on March 7th, 2015
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How early do you think children learn about their family? Would you believe from birth? From mom’s lullabies, to soothing strokes from grandma, to games babies are tickled with from aunts and uncles, all reveal family traditions and connections. Gradually over the years, children develop an increasingly complex understanding of who they are, based on their own experiences as well as their family’s. But for preschoolers, family ties can be hard to understand. Relationships such as sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and even further down the family tree take time to sort out and make sense of. And if children have to decipher step-relationships and half-siblings, it can get very confusing. Nonetheless, all relationships are understandable given time and experience.

Start with easy basics…

Preschool children first need to learn what families are. Our families today come in a variety of models; traditional, blended and extended. Some families are created by bloodline, while others are created through marriage, adoption, foster care or even communal agreements. Some families have two mommies or two daddies. All in all, the simplest way to approach the concept of family is to say they are the people you live with and who love and care for you. Children understand concrete examples best, so they quickly understand parent relationships when you ask who makes sure they have a home, food to eat, clothes, toys and who helps them when they don’t feel well.

Create some family art…

Begin by bringing out the family photos and make some projects together. It’s best to photocopy the family heirlooms, as the art projects may get dirty with glue, crayons and other art materials. As your children work with photographs, they will become acquainted with family members by visualization, especially family who do not live close.

Young children first symbolize family living in houses, as this is what they are used to seeing from day to day. Invite your child to draw a house. Then they can use glue sticks to paste photocopies of all their family members inside the rooms of their house. Don’t forget the pets, as these are members of the family too. Since transportation is so prominent in the family setting, you could repeat this activity with drawings of the family car or even an airplane representing a vacation trip.

If you want to make a family tree instead of the house project, that’s fine, but don’t worry about the sequence of hierarchy at this age. Preschoolers are just beginning to understand family as a group. The idea of when a family member first became part of this group is tough for little ones to understand. You may even get a statement that kids don’t live in trees!

Books are excellent ways to introduce family concepts…

Here are a few of my favorite books that discuss family that are age appropriate for preschoolers:

The Family Book by Todd Parr [Little Brown Books, 2010] portrays family as both human and animal figures. Some families are clean and other messy. Some include stepmoms, stepdads, and some adopt children. Other families have two moms or two dads, which some kids have only one parent. This book gives a good example of family structure and its many variations.

A classic story by Tomi DePaola explores extended family relationships, especially between grandparents and grandchildren like in the favorite Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs [Putnam, 2000]

Me and My Family Tree by Joan Sweeney [Dragonfly Books, 2000] is a story about a little girl who is making a family tree project and gluing photos of her family on paper. A very simple introduction to genealogy is discussed.

Libraries and bookstores contain a host of children’s books on families and relationships to read and share.

Other ways to explore families…

Bring out an atlas, as maps can help children grasp the idea that members of the extended family may not live in the same town, state or even country. You may want to draw lines on a map from one state or city to the next, to show family ties and relationships.

Another activity I did with my kids was to interview family members during family gatherings. It’s an opportunity for the children to interview grandparents, aunts, uncles or older cousins to better understand each other’s similarities and differences. Coach the children to ask simple questions like, “When you were young, what toys or games did you play with? Did you have any pets? What did they look like? Who were the most important people living with you?”

Learning about families is such an important part of growing up together and when the time is right to explore family trees, your saplings (under your guidance) will learn about your genealogy and explore the beautiful forest of your heritage.


Personal experience

Stephens, Karen; “Exploring Family Trees”; First Teacher, January/February 1999

More from this writer:

National Grandparents Day: Tips on Becoming a Grandparent

How Parents Can Enhance Early Childhood Development Skills

Why We Love Family Nights

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