To a young child, the idea of having a surname in addition to her first name is sometimes a difficult concept to grasp and understand. But, once a child does understand that some family members share names and that her surname is different from her friend's name, do not be afraid to start talking about your family's history and identity using the surnames in your family tree. Here, I have listed some simple hands-on activities that I have developed to help my kids start to recognize some of the surnames in our family tree. Many of the activities are multi-disciplinary in nature and will also help children with listening, writing, and memory skills.
Tracing and Writing Surnames
Teaching children how to write letters is one of those things in life in which repetition is absolutely the key to success. So, why not spend some of that practice time writing names? If you simply Google, 'blank writing paper,' you will find many websites that offer free, printable preschool and Kindergarten-level writing paper. What if your child is not yet comfortable writing letters on their own? Fortunately, there are also some sites (KB Teachers, WorksheetWorks.com) that will allow you to create worksheets with traceable words. This is exactly what I did for my four year old daughter:
Listening With Google Translate
Last weekend at the breakfast table, I was telling my husband about a surname blog post I had written about one of his German ancestral families with the surname of Waterkotte. I mentioned that I had thrown a Google Translate audio link into the blog post, so that reader could understand better why the surname became Watercutter in the U.S. My six year old son wanted to hear it, so I got out my laptop and played the audio for him. He LOVED it, so I typed in a few other surnames from our family tree and played them in their original ethnic tongues. He was so engaged, and as we were listening to the clips, I was able to mention things like, "This was great-grandma's last name before she was married," and "Grandma K's mom was born in Italy." Using the Sound of Text website, you can play and download an .mp3 audio file of the Google Translate pronunciation of words and phrases up to 100 characters. For example, here is the Polish pronunciation of my paternal grandmother's maiden name, Bodziony.
Even before children can read, they do have the ability to figure out when two words look the same, and knowing how to recognize the same word over and over again will make learning how to read that much easier when the time comes. So, when you are working on word recognition with young children, why not take a break from some of the typical shorter words like dog, cat, toy, etc. and use surnames? I made a simple matching worksheet in which the child can just draw lines to the same name on each side of the paper. You can include as many or as few names as you want, depending on your individual child's interest and attention span.
Or, you may cut out those names on the sheet, flip them over, and play a traditional matching game with the child. If you find two matching names and you get to keep the pair. The person with the most pairs wins.
Perhaps you know an elementary-aged child who is learning how to put words and names in alphabetical order. Or, if you have an middle- or high school-aged child, you can really start to talk about the ethnic origins of individual surnames in your tree. Try sitting down with them, examining the names, and group them into different nationality or language groups.
Does your child like looking at maps? The Worldnames Public Profiler website contains a modern-day database of eight million different surnames from 26 countries across the world. Simply type in a name, and the site show you on a map where the name is relatively common, and it will give you statistics on 'frequency per million.' Some regions of the world are better represented than others; for example, most of Europe is well-represented in the data, but, unfortunately, Latin America is not. Here is an example map of Poland using the surname Bodziony:
So, you can see that there are many ways in which to introduce kids to the surnames within their family trees, even if they can yet truly understand what an ancestor is or that great-great-grandpa was alive 100 years ago. If you start talking about and showing them the names now, there is a better chance that they won't be overwhelmed later when they are old enough to begin to understand more of the details associated with their family history.
©2014, copyright Emily Kowalski Schroeder.
©2014, copyright Emily Kowalski Schroeder.