The family tree project that many of us remember doing as kids can be a fun way for students to learn research skills. It can also spark a child’s interest in their personal history or provide a creative way for students to share information and stories about their family with classmates. Unfortunately, for students who are adopted, in foster care, or who come from non-traditional homes, the family tree assignment can be uncomfortable. 

If you are looking for ways for your students to learn and share about the people they love, check out these alternatives to family tree projects.

Focus on traditions, not genetics.

By looking at family traditions, students can share what is unique or interesting about their household—no matter what their family situation is like. Students can also look outside their own experience and learn about other people’s family traditions.

1. Write about or give a presentation on one of your family traditions or pastimes.

It can be something as elaborate as a Bar Mitzvah or a confirmation or as simple as Sunday morning pancakes or Friday night movie night. Whatever it is, it will give students a chance to reflect on what their family holds dear and why.

2. Research family traditions from around the world.

Ask students to write about a tradition they would like to start in their own family and why.

Interview someone (anyone!) about family life.

By giving them the option of interviewing family members or non-relatives about family life, students can gain insight into other people’s experiences.

3. Interview someone about their family history.

This person doesn’t have to be related to the student. After all, learning things about other people’s families is fun too.

4. Interview several different types of family members from any family.

Students can talk to mothers, fathers, older siblings, younger siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Encourage students to ask questions about each family member’s role, their responsibilities, or their favorite and least favorite things about that role.

Look at history.

Giving a family-themed lesson a historical spin is an excellent way to bring history to life.

5. Choose significant events in history and research connections to family members or family friends who were alive then.

My mother’s Great Aunt Zelda was alive during the Great Depression. Our next-door neighbor’s great great grandmother was a suffragette. This is a great way to give major historical events some context.

6. Research the family history of someone famous.

Knowing the background of historical figures can sometimes make them seem more real and more relatable. Additionally, finding out a famous person came from humble or troubled circumstances inspires students to rise above their own challenges.

Record family data, rather than family history.

Combine data analysis and family research in a way that is less personal and exclusive than a family tree assignment but still allows students to learn things about the people they live with.

7. Gather random facts about the members of your household and record the data.

Have students survey family or household members about things like whether or not they like pineapple on pizza, if they prefer cats or dogs, or if they eat the cake first or the frosting. They can then record these statistics–75 percent of my family members prefer dogs over cats or 5 out of 6 people in my household do not like pineapple on pizza.

8. Create a test for skills that are not necessarily genetic and record the results.

Have students ask members of their family or household to do things like answer riddles, shoot baskets, or recite tongue twisters and keep track of which family members possess which skills. They can even document which family members can roll their tongue since that actually has nothing to do with genetics. But if students are really interested in genetics (or superpowers), have them explore these fascinating gene mutations.

Get creative!

Allow students to come up with fun and interesting ways to look at families and family life.

9. Make up a family tree.

Begin with a single fictitious person or couple and let students give them a family history full of fascinating, funny, or sinister relatives.

10. Create alien family traditions.

Allow students to imagine life in a family from a planet and galaxy of their own creation. What holidays do they celebrate and how? How do they celebrate births and commemorate deaths? What rituals do they observe as a part of family life?

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all family. There is no one-size-fits-all assignment when it comes to learning and sharing about family life. The family tree assignment can be fun and fascinating for many students, but providing alternatives respects the feelings and circumstances of all learners.

10 Ways to Rethink the Family Tree Project (And Make it Inclusive for All Students!)