Family Reunions IV: Just for Kids

Family Reunions IV: Just for Kids

This is the fourth installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

One of the greatest services we perform as genealogists is preserving our ancestors’ memories for future generations. Engaging children in the details of their ancestry can be a challenge, however. Short of designing a video game where ancestors become reanimated to hunt down killer zombies, it’s hard to imagine what we can do to compete with all the distractions and immediate gratifications kids have before them.

The family reunion, however, offers the perfect opportunity to engage the youngest of your family members in their history in a way that is both educational and entertaining. Here are a set of activities that are informative, enjoyable and can help strengthen bonds across generations for your next reunion or family event.

Fun and Games

What better way to connect with a child than through fun and games? Have each adult bring a beloved game or toy from his or her childhood. Ideally, no batteries or electricity required. From marbles to pick-up sticks and Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots to Battleship, the possibilities are endless.

Have the adult “gamer” demonstrate the game and play it with the kids. Organize a tournament if you can or hold a raffle where each kid wins one of the games to take home. Make sure you have enough games to go around.


Story Time

Even the crotchetiest of crotchety old uncles were children once. And no matter how billy-goat gruff they may be now, even they have stories and books that they loved as children and remember fondly. Tap into that wellspring of nostalgia and ask adults to bring a favorite book from their childhood.

Organize a story time so that children can enjoy timeless tales like Little Golden Books, Winnie the Pooh, Curious George and beyond. As the adult reads the tale, sprinkling in some commentary about their own childhood is a sure way to connect with the young ones in the audience. As with the toys and games, a friendly raffle so that each kid can “inherit”  a book with a personal message inscribed will create precious keepsakes.

Ancestor Mad Libs

Remember the countless hours whiled away in the back seat of the car on a family road trip playing Mad Libs? You can bring the same family friendly and easy entertainment to your next reunion. Simply take a short family story, remove key words and create a Mad Libs-style worksheet. The rest is up to the kids and if  years of experience is any measure the results maybe silly and they may be goofy, but they will definitely be funny.

Family History Dance-Off

The kids already think the adults are from another planet, so why not prove it. Show them what passed for dancing 100, 50, even 20 years ago. The Turkey Trot, the Polka, the Charleston, the Lucky Lindy, even the Watusi and the Hustle. Imagine the fun showing kids these dances, prepping them and pitting them against each other in a good ‘ol fashion dance-off.

Keep the competition good-natured, with points for style, improvisation and good humor. And make a special effort to put these dances in context. It’s an entertaining way for kids to learn what life was like in eras as different as the roaring 20s and the turbulent 60s.

And remember, should they have too much fun at the “old timers” expense, just rest easy knowing the glee future generations will have making fun of the Sponge Bob and the Dougie, crimping and jerking and the other crazy moves that this generation calls dancing.

Ancestry Theater

Imagine your nieces and nephews, adorned in costumes they made themselves, re-enacting an important piece of family lore. Organizing a family theater, with children as stage and costume designers, scriptwriters, and actors, is a sure way to fire their imagination and make learning about family history center stage.

At the beginning of your reunion, the play is “cast” and the troupe given its direction, with the big event occurring on the last evening so that the kids have time to prepare. An adult sponsor, essentially the director, can help guide the children and make sure they have the resources they need.

The trick is to keep things simple, and make sure that the children have the freedom to let their natural creativity take charge. A simple story line can start things off. For props and a set, a box of old clothes, scarves, hats along with construction paper and other arts supplies can be used to recreate practically any era.

Ask the actors to choose from a well-known family story—their great-grandparent’s decision to sell the farm and move to the big city; a great uncle’s travails in finding his way home after the Civil War; an aunt’s accomplishment of starting a successful business. That’s all it takes. Depending on the number of children at your reunion, you may have multiple “short and sweet” plays of 10 to 15 minutes each.

Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 5. Next time we will discuss the best way to wrap up your family reunion, be certain that you have gathered as much information as possible for your genealogical research, and make plans for your next family event.



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Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

This is the third installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

So you’ve picked the location and theme and sent out the invitations. Your relatives will be descending on your ancestral hometown in two weeks. You have lunch and dinner covered and a family portrait planned for the first day, but what on earth are you going to do with all those people for the rest of the weekend? Don’t panic, with some well planned activities, your guests will be entertained and you can gather important facts and photos for your family history research.

Ice breakers

A great way to get the conversation flowing is to begin with an ice breaker. One simple approach is to create flash cards with family trivia. One side of the card has a photograph of the subject and the trivia question, the other side has the answer.

What was Frank Smith’s occupation? Where was great grandma Ford born?

For children they could be about relatives still living that are familiar to them.

What farm animals live on Uncle John’s farm? Where does grandma Laura live? 

This is a useful tool for teaching family history in a fun and engaging way.

Oral history

Oral history recordings are a treasure like no other. More than any other media, capturing the memories of relatives through video and voice recording provides future generations with a personal connection and understanding of their ancestors. Tiny details such as the inflection in someone’s voice, or a slight hesitation before answering a question can tell a listener far more than reading the same words in print.

Family reunions are a perfect time to record oral histories. As your relatives mingle and reminisce about old times, they are reminded of events from their past and will provide richer, more colorful stories.

The most important step in planning an oral history is to prepare your questions carefully. If your relatives are uncomfortable and fidgety in front of a camera, it helps to give them questions in advance so they can develop a script. As they become more comfortable you can ask further questions to extract the information that you need.

One of my favorite tricks for drawing memories out of a person who is uncomfortable or unsure what to say is to show them a photograph from some period of their life, and ask them to talk about that day. You can ask about others in the photograph, where and when it was taken, who the photographer was. Visual clues can play an especially important role in interviewing elderly people who tend to recall events much more clearly when they have a photograph to jog their memory. Don’t worry if the photograph doesn’t produce helpful results, you can always edit the interview later.

For more information about how to conduct oral history interviews, see the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Interviewing Guide.

Photo and document scanning

Photos and documents have a short half-life. They fade, get damaged, and are sometimes lost. An easy, efficient way to gather and digitize them is to ask all of your guests to bring their photographs and documents to the reunion.

Designate a tech-savvy guest to handle the scanning while the older relatives identify the subjects of photographs. If you are expecting a large number of guests, it helps to have multiple scanners and laptops to make this a quick operation. It is important that you decide on a system for how documents and photographs are to be labeled and categorized so they are sortable by date, subject, location or source.

After you scan the photos and documents, you can choose a few of the best and present them in a slide show or craft a beautiful photo album to send to your guests. If you have created a family reunion website, sharing them online allows everyone in the family to view and download the photographs.

Recipe book

Food plays such an important role in our lives that it’s no wonder family recipes are so treasured. But family recipes have a way of getting passed down to one person, leaving the rest of the family empty-handed. Reunions are a great time to gather up all the handwritten recipe cards from family members and create an heirloom cookbook.

There are several sites that offer book design and printing services. My favorite is where you can create a professional looking, colorful cookbook and have it printed in hard or soft cover. They even print book jackets so your family cookbook will be as impressive as your time and creativity allows. Blurb will also stock your book in their online inventory so relatives can easily order their own copy directly from them.

Photo booth

Borrowing from a popular trend among wedding planners, photo booths are an easy and inexpensive way to entertain guests and capture a fun-loving, playful side of your family. They require little work to set up and are an entertaining activity for kids and adults alike.

Your photo booth can be as simple as a single chair with a colorful backdrop and a camera on a tripod. The fun and variation come with the props that you choose. I created the props used in the photos below from free printables by the pretty blog and Oh Happy Day.  Stick-on mustaches make for a charming photograph and are available at most toy stores and costume shops.


Sasha Souza Events created an elaborate wall backdrop for one of their events, with photo frames that guests can look through. If you are handy with a hammer, this makes an appropriate and fun family photograph. A backdrop like this is easy to personalize by including details like an ancestor’s photo on the wall, a family bible or a doily made by your grandmother sitting on a small table just in front of the backdrop.

Sasha Souza Events – photo credit to Elizabeth Messina


Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 4. Next time we will explore children’s games to keep all of your younger guests entertained.



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Interview with Tamsen Donker, photographer

Interview with Tamsen Donker, photographer

Tamsen Donker is a professional photographer in the Niagara, Ontario area. Her company, Creative Clicks Photography, specializes in family and child photography and her radiant photographs provide perfect inspiration for anyone planning a family reunion or portrait.

  • Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest to the photograph.
  • Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker


Sarah Ashley: I’m thrilled to interview you for my blog. My goal is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Photography is obviously such a big part of this. There’s a million things we could talk about but I want to focus our interview specifically on photographing family reunions. Before we get started though, tell me a little about yourself. How long have you been a professional photographer? How did you get started? what do you love the best about it?

Tamsen Donker: I am a child of God, a wife, and a mother of (almost) four beautiful children. Photography is something that’s always been in my blood but I never seriously considered really getting into it until I was on maternity leave with my first child. I took a few courses, but quickly realized that I could learn more on my own with the help of Google, forums and lots of practice.

I spent many, many nights going to bed just before my husband would get up for work in the morning…I couldn’t wait to learn, to know more and to improve my skills. It takes time and dedication, especially when you have children underfoot, but I really enjoyed seeing my skills grow and sharing it with others as well.

I just LOVE capturing moments for clients (and my family) that feel like a special, intimate moment but also give a feel of art – something they can hang in their home and enjoy every single day.

Sarah: When it comes to making sure that they’re able to “capture the moment” with photography, what general advice do you have for people planning a family reunion?

Tamsen: First off, I recommend planning a location and time of day that will work well with children if they will be involved. I always prefer to shoot an hour or two after sunrise or before sunset as that light is the most beautiful and flattering BUT it needs to work for the children and if they are young, a session at 7-8 PM might not be the best idea. A morning session would be good in that situation as the kids are well rested, full, and happy. Choose a location that offers some shade and a variety of interesting locations to use as a backdrop. Often when I do family reunion sessions, they’ve traveled and may not know the area too well, so I recommend locations to use as well.

Sarah: Let’s talk candid vs. staged photographs. Reunions would have both. What tips can you give about making sure there are plenty of high quality candid photographs coming out of the event?

Tamsen: When it comes to a reunion, I always do the formal portraits first. This ensures that everyone is fresh, children are clean and happy and then everyone can relax for the rest of the day. Then I can capture candid moments as they happen later on.

Sarah: Do you have any tips for helping relatives who are not comfortable in front of the camera?

Tamsen: When I arrive, I always go around introducing myself and talking with everyone so they know a little about me and aren’t as uncomfortable when the photos start. Then I pose them in a way that feels comfortable and relaxed to them and as I’m photographing, I keep talking, making everyone laugh and just kinda acting like a dork to get those “real” natural smiles out of the group.

Sarah: What are different ways to “stage” a group photo? Most of us seem to gravitate to the “taller in back, shorter in front” guideline. Are there other ways to think about it?

Tamsen: Well, that’s a standard pose but there’s always the opportunity to use natural items as well to mix up the portraits. I prefer to keep it more real and relaxed, so using architectural or natural elements in the location helps to break up the standard pose and create a more interesting photograph. Kneeling, sitting, leaning, using rocks at a beach, logs in a forest, incorporating a stool if needed – this helps to break up the portrait.

I also try to keep in mind the “triangle rule” – posing groups/families so that their heads form a triangular pattern is a pleasing look in a photograph as well. This trick is not new – in fact, if you look at paintings from long ago, you will notice that large groups are painted in the same way.

Sarah: What are interesting ways to think about perspective? What would you recommend about taken shots from above or from below? How do you make perspective work in your favor to get a unique group photograph?

Tamsen: One thing I will never do is photograph people from below. It’s not a flattering angle and I don’t think anyone wants to see up their nostrils. I prefer to shoot on a stepladder for family sessions. Shooting from above a little helps create a more flattering angle and also enables me to see everyone, including those who may be in the back (I’m a short 5’4” so the stepladder is essential to me!).

I don’t shoot from very high above (i.e. from a balcony) because the subjects are usually craning their heads upward, getting sun in their eyes, etc. I can see this possibly being necessary with a huge group (over 50+) but with smaller reunions it is nicer to be able to see everyone’s face clearly.

Sarah: How about “dressing people” for a group photo? As you organize people in the group should the color of their clothing match, or be as diverse as possible? What do you think of the “team t-shirt” approach for a group photo?

Tamsen: Coordinating clothing is very important to the final image. I prefer families to look like themselves, dressed in their own clothing, and not in a standard uniform of white shirts and khaki pants. I encourage them to simply talk to one another about their family color choices and ensure that everything will complement color wise. This often means that they will choose a color palette (i.e. blues, greys, purples) and everyone can wear colors that will work nicely together without looking like they just all hit up a mall for a new shirt. Discussing this with family members is KEY to the final portrait, because if one person shows up in a bright red dress, they will clash horribly and stand out of the crowd.

I also suggest avoiding large logos across the front of shirts and hats, which can block out other family members or cause shadows on the individual’s face. I include on my blog a monthly “What to Wear” post which helps my clients to understand what I mean by “complement”. Often the very easiest way to find a complementary palette is to look at an item of clothing that incorporates a lot of color.

Sarah: How about props? The possibilities here are endless. Have you seen props effectively used in photographs at reunions? What are the things to think about (and avoid) when considering props?

Tamsen: Other than bringing stools or blankets to sit on, I don’t use a lot of props. I think some things might be cute (using large numbers or letters to spell out the family name or anniversary date) but I wouldn’t incorporate them into every image. I prefer a simple and clean image that leaves the attention on the subjects of the image rather than the cool props.

Sarah: What are your thoughts on background for a group photo? Many reunions take place at historical sites or family homes. Should people try to include something relevant in the background or does that distract from the people in the photograph?

Tamsen: I love the idea of including a family home, or cottage into the background of the portrait and it gives so much more meaning as well. When I photograph, I would situate the group a distance away from the building so that the whole thing would show in the background but it would be out of focus, leaving the family members the main subject in the image. 

Sarah: We all know light is critical to good photography but what does that mean in terms of taking a good group shot? Do we want the lighting directly overhead or coming from the side? What should we be looking for in this regard?

Tamsen: Overhead light is the least flattering to any portrait. It creates harsh shadows under eyes (often called raccoon eyes) and bright spots everywhere else. It is possible to shoot in this type of light if there is a large area of open shade, but I always prefer to do posed portraits in more even lighting. As I mentioned before, the most beautiful time of day for light is early morning or late evening.

I shoot with the light coming from behind, which creates a beautiful halo of light around the subjects and keeps them from squinting in the sunlight.

Sarah: What else can you share with us about taking fun and high quality group photos?

Tamsen: Go into it with a positive attitude. I find men especially hate portraits which can create stress within the whole group. 

If everyone goes into the session with a fun and positive attitude, the session ALWAYS goes smoother. It really only takes a maximum of one hour for posed portraits if everyone behaves well, so the sooner people behave the sooner we are done! I just keep reminding them of the delicious food and drink and all the fun ahead of them!

Thank you, Tamsen, for providing these helpful suggestions to our readers. If you would like to see more of Tamsen’s work or find out how you can hire her for your next family reunion, visit her website at


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Family Reunions II: Themes, invitations and online tools

Family Reunions II: Themes, invitations and online tools

This is the second installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

You’ve chosen a location and date for your event, now it’s time to select a theme, invitation and method for managing your replies.


Your theme can be as simple as a single color that you carry through your invitation, decorations, t-shirts, etc. or it can be more elaborate such as a decade or era of history with coordinating decorations, activities and food. If you have a famous ancestor like Wild Bill Hickok or Annie Oakley, a western theme is pretty much mandatory.

Amy Atlas, a dessert stylist (yes, there is such a thing!) known for her fanciful dessert display tables is a source of inspiration for me when I plan an event. Her site has beautiful party photographs in every theme you can imagine. While you might not be planning a dessert table, the color palettes demonstrated on her site provide great inspiration.

There are many ways to carry your theme throughout your reunion – invitations and shirts that reflect your color palette or imagery are two fun and affordable ways to set the stage.


If your family has a sense of humor, you can have a lot of fun with your invitation. Here is an amazing invitation that designed by Calvin K. Carter of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Another humorous invitation that should resonate with just about everyone is by Sandra Denneler.

Courtesy of Sandra Denneler

For those of you that prefer a more traditional approach, there are several designs available on sites like Etsy and often you can hire the vendors to create custom invitations for relatively little expense compared to a larger design firm.


Usually purchased last-minute, t-shirts are typically an over-sized, embarrassing abomination of a shirt. The family reunion t-shirt often finds its way into the donation pile or becomes a dust rag. I’ve got great news, not only can your t-shirts fit everyone on your list, they can look so stylish you’ll want to wear them again, even when you don’t have to. Kin. T-shirt designs for family reunions, by designer Angela Hardison, offers seven stylish shirts that are customizable by design and color. Even better, Kin. will send you the artwork and you can choose any screen printing service and t-shirt you would like (Kin. recommends American Apparel shirts which are soft and come in a large variety of colors).

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Web tools

If you have a large gathering planned (more than 20 people), it will make your task much lighter if you use one of the many event planning tools available on the web. One service often recommended by family reunion websites is My Event, which has packages starting at $14.95. While I have not used this service myself, it does offer a customizable template that may appeal to people with limited or no web design experience.

WordPress, a blog host, offers several free templates that can easily be customized to give your site a unique and personalized feel. It allows you to post updates on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Additionally your guests can subscribe to the blog and have your postings delivered to their email automatically.

Before the event, the site will act as a platform for planning activities, allowing your attendees to contribute their ideas. After the event, you can use this site to share photographs and, most importantly, your genealogical findings. In short, this powerful technology can help you organize the event, communicate with attendees, and serve as an ongoing virtual repository of images, findings, and anecdotes.

Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 3. Next time we will explore special activities to make your family reunion fun and memorable.



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The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The famous Hatfields – 1897

The Hatfields and McCoys are feuding again, this time in a History Channel movie airing on May 31, 2012, starring Kevin Costner. The infamous Kentucky and West Virginia clans known for their bloody discord lasting from 1882 to 1888 have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans and have now been revived in what will no doubt be an appropriately violent rendition of their 1880s scuffle.

On August 15, 1946, 58 years after the famous fracas ended, Walt Disney released a charming animated film called Make Mine Music which contained ten short clips, including The Martins and the Coys, based on the Ted Weems and Al Cameron song of the same name. This short film portrayed two families (the Martins and Coys), engaged in a fatal gun fight that ends when each family has one survivor left. This gentle caricature, based on the Hatfields and McCoys, is what most people born between 1940 and today picture when they think of a feud.

For those of you that read yesterday’s post, Family Reunions – Part 1: Location, location, location, and worried that a reunion would stir up old family quarrels, you’ll be comforted to hear that the Hatfields and McCoys have made peace and for the past 13 years have held annual family reunions. According to a CBS News story, “Official End of Legendary Feud” by Rome Neal, on Saturday, June 14, 2003 the acrimony officially ended when representatives from both families signed a truce. I suspect that a Hatfield/McCoy family reunion has a fairly low bar for success – as long as no one dies, everyone leaves happy. For those of you with higher expectations, check back for my continuing series on how to pull off the perfect family reunion.

Family Reunions I: Location, location, location

Family Reunions I: Location, location, location

As any guide to genealogy that you find on a book shelf or the web will tell you, the first step to researching your family history is to start with what is known about your ancestors and fill in the missing details. The best way to ensure that you have wrung every last drop of information from your family is to round them up and interrogate them, each and every one. In the past, this was called kidnapping, but today it’s called a family reunion and the rewards you will reap from planning one will be well worth your effort.
Pershing Family Reunion - Library of Congress

Pershing Family Reunion – Library of Congress







If the words “family reunion” conjure up images of crying children, feuding cousins and prickly parents, fear not. With some careful planning and a few tricks up your sleeve, your next family gathering will be a major success.

One of the first (and most important) decisions you’ll have to make is where to hold your reunion. There are several things to consider when choosing the location:

Travel distance

How far will your guests be traveling to attend the event? It is best to choose a place that is central to the majority of relatives. If you are lucky, like me, your family is concentrated in one small area. If they’re scattered far and wide, consider a location that provides the easiest access for the largest number of attendees, or is closest to those that are mobility impaired. If your aunt Agnes doesn’t get around so well, it is a nice gesture to plan a reunion close to her home and leave the traveling to more spritely folks.

Accommodations and Expense

Failing to provide guests with affordable options for where to stay is the biggest blunder that you can make. The fastest way to alienate potential attendees is to pick a posh location with over-the-top amenities and outrageous prices. Try to locate an area that provides multiple rooming options and if possible, find a few family members that have extra rooms in their homes for people who simply cannot afford the hotel high-life. This is especially important for large families who have traveled long distances so aunt Agnes doesn’t have to.

Historical Significance 

Perhaps your great-grandfather was a mason and helped build the train depot, or your grandmother was a school teacher in the one room schoolhouse – incorporating historical sites that are significant to your family’s heritage creates a perfect backdrop to your event. If it is a historically significant venue you may be able to rent the space to have your gathering there, otherwise, consider researching the building’s history and giving a guided tour.


If your reunion will include children (and it almost certainly will), try to plan for some outdoor space where children can safely play. Parks with playgrounds make particularly suitable gathering places and many have buildings with dining tables and chairs that can be rented for a minimal fee. If you live somewhere in the warm and sunny south, the time of year is less important, but if you are north of the Mason-Dixon, like my family, planning your reunion in the Summer is the best bet. In any case, take into account the types of activities available and the projected seasonal temperature when picking your location and date and make sure attendees know what to expect.


Fried chicken, potato salad and corn on the cob are traditional favorites. Food doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be stress-free. If your budget allows, having a simple catered event is by far the easiest option, if not, consider a potluck or bbq with kid friendly foods like hotdogs. If there is a recipe that has been in your family for years, like Agnes’ famous apple pandowdy, be sure to include it. If you are having a picnic or potluck be certain that the space you choose has a place to sit, grills or stovetops (if serving hot food), and refrigeration.

By carefully considering and researching these various options, you’ll be sure to pick a location that gives your reunion the best chance of success.
Stay tuned for more posts on planning a successful family reunion. Next time, we’ll talk about themes, invitations and reunion websites.

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