Unit studies – have you heard of them? Have you ever used one? What about making one for your kids based on their interests? Let’s look at what a unit study is and how to plan a unit study.
What Is a Unit Study?
It’s always a good idea to define your terms when introducing a new concept. That’s just a basic teaching principle. So, let’s define a unit study. The simplest definition probably goes something like this: A unit study is a series of related assignments and activities centered around a common theme, idea, topic of interest, or a piece of literature.
A unit study can be specific in its focus, or it can be general and broad. It can last for a few days, a week, a month, your call. A unit study can incorporate all subjects or just a few. Since you are in charge, you get to decide! But some thought to the planning will make it all work better.
Why Would I Ever Want to Plan a Unit Study?
The idea of unit studies can be attractive. At the same time, however, unless you have carefully planned, it is way too easy to get bogged down with all the great books and activity ideas and never make any progress! (Ask my older kids how long we spent in Ancient Egypt!) Here are some positives and negatives of using unit studies.
- Easy way to focus on something your child shows a great interest in
- Great way to go into more depth on any given subject than the textbook allows.
- It makes multi-grade teaching easier. Maybe.
- Gets you out of textbooks and into “real” books.
- Requires more preparation time from you
- Easy to get bogged down with all the great books and activities
- It may be challenging to find all the extra books and materials to do what you want to do.
- May not cover all subject areas well enough
So, like many other things in life, weigh the potential benefits and pitfalls of unit studies before diving in.
How Do You Create a Unit Study?
Enough of the theoretical stuff; time to get to the “how-to” part of this. How do you take some grandiose ideas and turn them into a real, workable academic unit study? Keep reading!
Establish a topic or theme for your unit study.
Pick an idea, any idea, that you think your kids might enjoy doing some more in-depth learning about. You could choose a current interest your kids have – dinosaurs, cooking, horses, robotics, computers – anything you think of can become a unit study.
You could base an entire unit study around a book you will read to your kids. Or a book you want them to read. If your child is interested in horses, you might think about designing a unit study around one of Marguerite Henry’s books about horses. Maybe your kids are ready for a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Craft a unit study based on the book. Are you studying the geography and history of Antarctica? Design a unit study about explorers and exploration of Antarctica.
If you love the idea of unit studies, you will never run out of ideas!
Lay out your goals and purposes.
If we don’t design studies with clear goals or intent, it isn’t easy to know if we have accomplished anything. What is your reason for designing this unit study? What do you want your kids to know and understand by the time you finish the study?
Set up a time frame for the unit study.
Don’t let your study be open-ended! You may never finish. There will always be one more great book, one more cool activity, another spectacular video! (See my earlier reference to our ancient Egypt study!)
Will your study last for three days? One week? Or do you plan to devote an entire month to this unit? Be realistic, though. How will this unit study fit in with the rest of your academic year? Deciding on a specific time frame for your unit will help you focus better on what you should include in your study. Don’t forget to be realistic about how long activities, crafts, field trips, and experiments take to complete!
What subjects do you plan to include in your unit study?
How many subjects can you reasonably include in this study? If you base your unit study on a book, you could create assignments for reading, writing, art, geography, maybe history. Depending on the book, you might even be able to include science assignments. Kindergarten or lower elementary levels might consist of math concepts, like counting, sorting, or charting.
Math is more difficult to work into a unit study, especially with older students. You can include concepts about measuring, graphing, statistics, etc., with a short study; however, most older students need continuity with their math texts.
Science, geography, and history are much easier to add to unit studies, even those based on books. A good book may easily lead to some need for historical background, including how geography and culture play into the story.
Research your options.
Now comes the fun part! Once you have determined your topic or theme, set a time frame for your study, and decided which subjects to include, it’s now time to look for and plan all the activities to include in your unit study.
Look for books!
Find some great non-textbook books for your kids to use for research and information. The Usborne books and the Dorling-Kindersley books are great for unit studies. They provide so much information, use colorful pictures, but are not overwhelming for younger students. These types of books are perfect for scientific and historical background information.
What activities can you include in your unit study that relate to your topic?
Do the characters in the book make or eat a certain food? Find recipes to recreate what the characters eat. Do they play a game? Find the instructions and play the game with your children.
What can you have your children write based on your unit study?
How would they feel if they were the character? Have your children write lists of what the characters did. Or have them write a letter to a historical figure in the book. If you are looking at a historical event or a scientific discovery, have your kids pretend to be journalists and write an article for the newspaper. Okay, maybe you want to change that to writing social media posts about the discovery. Write 10 Instagram posts about the great Chicago Fire. Be creative!
Don’t forget to include art or craft activities in your list of options!
Illustrate a scene from the book. Create a comic strip about an event in your study. Make a diorama to depict a certain scene from history. Draw a map of the area you are studying. Maybe you need to learn to crochet, or cook, or do woodworking.
Are you studying something scientific?
Find some experiments to do based on your topic. If you are studying weather, you can do experiments to “make” rain, create a tornado in a bottle, form clouds, etc.
Look for videos to complement your studies.
Science videos, history videos – what will fit with your topic? My son used to love watching the Nova Kids Science videos and the Nova Science Now videos. (Of course, you need to be prepared to discuss views expressed in books and videos that may not agree with your beliefs. That allows you to explain more of what you believe and why in a realistic setting.)
Are there any field trips you can take to enhance your unit studies?
Are you near a science museum? Is there a historic site near you? Do you have access to a local history museum with displays related to your unit study’s historical period?
List out all possible options!
Yes, you will end up with far more on your list than you can accomplish in your allotted time frame. That’s why I had you set limits on your study!
Organize and schedule your unit study activities and gather all your materials.
Now it is time to narrow down all your options, decide what you can accomplish, match all your options with your predetermined goals and purposes, and work them into your schedule.
How do you do that? Make a chart for the days of the week, the subjects you are including, and start filling your chart in with assignments and activities. You can use paper, a spreadsheet, a table in a document, whatever works for you. You might even be organized enough to enter it all in your lesson plan book.
The key thing is to get specific assignments and goals created and written out in a way that works for you. Do you need to prepare any worksheets or activity instructions in advance? Do you need copies of anything?
What extra books or materials do you need? Do you have everything necessary for science experiments? What about the art or craft projects you planned? Your life will be so much easier if you collect all you need before starting your unit study! (Not that I speak from experience or anything….)
Keep records of what you did.
Keeping records of all the activities you completed with your kids during your unit study is beneficial. It offers proof of learning, and it lets you learn from any planning mistakes so you can do better with the next unit study. And your kids can enjoy looking back at what they accomplished.
Keeping records does not mean you have to keep every paper and craft! Take pictures of art projects, crafts, experiments. Record a video of your child explaining what they did or what they learned. Scan important writing assignments and store them as digital files on your computer.
Some final thoughts:
Planning is key to making a unit study work well.
Plan so you have time to collect all you need before starting your unit study.
Be creative! Unit studies should be fun. Your kids might even have so much fun they forget they are doing schoolwork.
Planning unit studies takes time and work, probably more than you anticipate. Don’t overwhelm yourself!
If you don’t feel you can adequately prepare a unit study, you can find many to purchase and some for free. Look online.
Unit studies are not for everyone.
Some people thrive on creating and implementing unit studies; others try one and find it does not fit their teaching or learning styles. Do what works best for you and your kids and your schedule.
Happy homeschooling, no matter how you do it!
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