Unit Studies for Real Moms

Unit studies can be as fancy or simple as you want them to be, but they should never be overwhelming! If you have tried unit studies and been disappointed, or just can’t figure out quite how to do them, this post is for you!

First of all, just what is a unit study, anyway?

(I included an expert definition a few posts back. You can find it here.)

To put it into its simplest terms, a unit study is a natural way of learning.

For example, when we want to know about something in our adult lives (such as how to purchase a car or a house) we begin by doing some research. We ask friends, relatives, and neighbors about their experiences. We go online and check out tips, tricks and legalities. We might read books or magazines. There may be television shows or videos we could watch on the subject. Our “field trips” may include visiting model homes or car lots. We might keep a journal, scrapbook or just a file folder full of the different brochures, business cards, pictures, etc. that we gather.

Homeschooling unit studies should follow the same path.

There should be a single focus, such as studying the U.S. Constitution (as we are doing in a few weeks). Then there should be a process involving:

  1. Familiarization with the general idea(s). Our children are pretty new to our planet, so it’s important to give them context for what you are studying. For instance, before we go very deep into our study of the Constitution, the children are reading a few biographies on the founding fathers. We are also going to be watching a video or two that I found on YouTube to give them a general overview.
  2. A few unifying activities. For our current unit, there will be memorization of the Preamble and reading through the Constitution itself. Other units may include a single book that could be read aloud and then activities or assignments made based on the information found in the book or story.
  3. A bit of writing. For the youngest this may be little more than copying some key names, places, or words. The work could be increased according to age, with those at a medium level writing short sentences and paragraphs, and older children writing biographies, narratives, news articles, and essays.
  4. A bit of drawing. This could be anything from a map to a diagram to an elaborate mural.
  5. A bit of hands-on. One of the books we are using is Gingerbread for Liberty!: How a German Baker Helped Win the Revolution, so we are going to be using the recipe in the cover of the book and baking our own gingerbread. There is also a national art contest for Constitution Day that we are planning to send in entries for.

There are also lots of other nifty things you could add on as you and your children totally immerse yourself into a subject:

  1. Word puzzles
  2. Coloring pages
  3. Costumes
  4. Cuisine
  5. Field trips
  6. Reinactments
  7. Notebooking pages
  8. Newsletter
  9. Story writing
  10. Map making
  11. Interviewing an “expert”
  12. Creating a documentary
  13. Making a diarama
  14. Making a game based on your information
  15. Sending away for more information (to a state or country’s tourist office, for example)

All of this sounds quite exciting, until you sit and calculate all the time and expense it could take.

It is good to remember that it is us, the moms, who shoulder the burden of research and planning with this method. If taken to the extreme, unit studies can be a disruptive, enslaving chore.

But they don’t have to be.

There are a number of ways a unit study can be approached. You can:

  1. Make plans in exact detail within a set time frame.
  2. Start out with a subject and wing it, gathering information and taking off in different directions at will.
  3. Have some plans and resources in place, but allow for spontaneity.
  4. Let the interest develop naturally over time as you live daily and find ways to connect a lot of information into a cohesive whole as it organically occurs.
  5. A little bit of everything above.

As a general rule, I choose number 5. I make some detailed plans and scribble them down. I keep a folder with bookmarks of interesting Internet destinations, printables, and video. I might even print out some of the resources I find.

However, any and all of what I have chosen may change as soon as we all become immersed in our subject. We may start out by watching a video on the Constitution and decide we want to focus on a particular person that day, or idea, or place, or event. Then we might decide to do a notebooking page, or have a debate, or gather up our scarves and wigs and dress up as a historical character and give speeches.

We might take out a book of songs and sing a a few from the era. There may be interest in making something, a food or an implement such as a quill pen, mentioned in our investigation. There is so much fun going on that we probably will not watch the clock at all, and then dinner will be late and the clothes will pile up in the laundry room…

This is when homeschooling seems to be a touch of heaven on earth.

But the learning never ends there. As we travel along learning in various other ways we will find connections and talk about them. We may be watching a television show and hear a reference to Alexander Hamilton and make a note of it. Or we may hear a bit of the Constitution being recited (or misused) and we can pick it out and speak about it with each other.

Truly, this type of learning is just about my favorite!

However, there are a few things we need to watch for so that we don’t all burn out and run screaming for the hills:

Don’t overburden young children.

Sometimes Mom is a little too zealous. Yes, there is an age and ability range where unit studies are a perfect fit, but not in the early primary years. A tiny person with chubby hands and feet who is having trouble writing his name is definitely too young to appreciate such a learning journey. Besides some basic phonics, a little bit of fine-motor exercise, and plenty of reading aloud together, don’t expect the moon. Let him play and save the unit studies for a day when he is ready. We always try and make the little ones feel included, but we don’t push them to join in with the older one’s activities.

Don’t plan too much in one day.

Remember K. I. S. S.–“Keep It Simple Sweetheart.” When we plan to include the sun, moon, and stars we end up with nothing but a cosmic explosion! Doing one thing well is much better than doing a kazillion things poorly with a mom who is frazzled and touchy.

Don’t try to cover everything.

A unit study is not about covering every last detail that can be learned about a subject. As we are studying the Constitution we will be memorizing the preamble, but we will not attempt to memorize the entire document. We may familiarize ourselves with a few of the founding fathers, but we will not exhaust ourselves with getting to know each intimately. The idea is to give a child an overview and stir them up to want to learn more on their own.

Don’t let your activities become too elaborate.

The Taj Mahal was not built in a day, and it definitely was not built on the dining room table! Sometimes we can become a bit too ambitious with projects. We might even order supplies that cost a pretty penny and find we either don’t have time to get to them or our children have no interest in them, which is a huge disappointment and a waste of precious time and money. (One year we bought a 3-D puzzle of the White House which was never assembled and ended up going to the thrift store.) Instead, keep a stock of general supplies that can be used in a host of different ways. A printer, some card stock, glue sticks, markers, and a few items beyond these (such as textiles and other raw materials) are usually all you should need.

Oh, and even the simple supplies need to be monitored. A few of my children are big dreamers but run out of steam half-way through an ambitious endeavor. I try to encourage them to plan something they can complete relatively easily, unless they are older and are mature enough to see something more complicated through to the end.

Don’t put your plans in stone.

When I write things down it is in pencil, not pen. Sometimes I don’t even write directly on the page but use sticky-notes to jot down ideas that can easily be removed and changed as we go along. This way there is no disappointment or feeling we can’t change everything up on a whim.

If you live in an area with a well-stocked library, take advantage of the online catalog and order every book they have on the subject. I like to look up books on Amazon.com and Good Reads on the subject we are studying, then I reserve the titles my library actually carries and pick them up when they are ready. After I take them home I weed through the pile and only keep the worthy ones.

(Sneaky tip: If you leave good library books in different places around the house your children will pick them up and read them when you are not looking.)

Don’t worry about field trips.

Sometimes field trips work in perfectly, especially if there is something close-by that takes little to no coordination or planning. Other times there are some definite places we want to visit or experiences we want to have that will take a bit of planning. If you can’t find a field trip that works, don’t sweat it. No one will die or suffer from educational deprivation. If you find one that works, just needs to be planned at a different date way out from your actual study, that’s OK, too. Let your kids study and wrap-up, and then plan that trip to Washington D.C. in the near future. Don’t worry, they will still be able to make the connections.

As for record keeping…

Learning this way is full and rich, but if you are needing to keep records for officials, or even need something tangible to show your spouse or relatives, here are some ideas:

  • Create folders or a binder to hold each child’s writing and drawing projects.
  • Take photos of different activities, print them out, and paste them onto paper which can then be added to a binder you are creating of your learning adventures together.
  • Keep a running list of all the activities you are doing daily and note what academic areas you are touching, perhaps with a system of initials denoting each area: LA=language arts, SS=social studies, Sc=science, PA=physical activity, Mu=music, Ma=math, A=art, etc. (use this nifty sheet I created to make things easier).

A few more ideas to keep things sweet and simple:

Instead of spending money on curriculum for social studies, science, etc., invest in reference books and other tools that can be used across a number of disciplines. Usborne, Dorling Kindersley, video series,  Netflix, atlases, globes, encyclopedias, computers and computer programs (such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign), bicycles, swimming passes, art and craft supplies, museum and other venue passes, musical instruments and lessons, and on and on….

Even with all of this spontaneous, organic learning, there is a point where it fizzles. You can’t keep the same enthusiasm going for weeks and weeks, so I try and have some sort of “wrap-up” to give closure.

This can mean the children take turns showing what they have created. It can mean they recite a poem we memorized on the subject. It can mean we host a dinner party with foods from a time or region and invite friends. We try to do something tangible to recap and give closure so we can move on.

Remember, you can cater each activity to the ability level of each child. If you do have a few toddlers and preschoolers who want to be included in the mix, by all means allow them to participate as much as they can without feeling pushed. Beginners, middlers, and advanced learners should be expected to do notebooking, copywork, and the like that shows they are engaging and being challenged without being frustrated with work that is too strenuous or tedious.

One way to do this is to use different notebooking formats, some with primary lines, some with less lines for writing, and some with more lines for more writing.

And here’s something important I have learned along the way:

Unit studies should not be used as the primary way to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Yes, they are great ways to practice the basic disciplines in the context of interest and delight, but my children have needed concentrated time in the basics apart from these learning journeys. In this season of our homeschooling I am alternating weeks. One week we will concentrate on the three R’s, and the next we will do all the other “fun” stuff (still including Bible and math, which tends to be a weak point).

In this way we don’t become bored or burnt out on a singular focus. I can do this because I:

  1. Don’t follow grade levels
  2. Have good, solid books I use that help me keep track of learning milestones instead of grades.

What does a unit study day look like?

Well, first we do life, meaning we take care of ourselves (especially the babies) and our home. Then we have some Bible reading and discussion. Then we might go over a few small things such as our Greek/Latin roots program. There will be math somewhere in the mix, too, although it may move around from before together time, to the middle of our together time, to the end.

We might watch a video clip or a movie, or we can sit and share a book together. We can be drawing or creating something such as a practical implement or a food. We could play a game or do some role-playing or make huge posters. It all depends on the plans we’ve made or the connections we find as we go along.

I might decide that, no matter what else we do, everyone will have at least one notebooking page completed each day. 

Sometimes there will be individual silent reading assignments or projects that will be included on their weekly assignment sheets. This can include crosswords and other types of puzzles as well. 

At some point we may venture out and explore on the lines of our subject, perhaps visiting a museum or collection of art at the library. In the past it was fun to put on a presentation for the grandparents.

Even after our formal learning activities have ceased, there will be connections all over the place and we will all enjoy pointing them out and discussing them together.

This is the magic of homeschooling; we are not only educating our children, we are developing a family culture that unifies us and builds community within our homes that has the potential of lasting lifetimes (as long as Jesus is kept at the center).

I hope this simplifies things! As you can see, unit studies can be a marvelous way for you and your children to enjoy learning together.

Our next unit study will be on Johnny Appleseed, since it is apple season and his birthday is in September. If you like, I can send out some specific book lists and links to resources in my next email campaign–be sure and sign up!

3 thoughts on “Unit Studies for Real Moms

  1. Thanks for this, Sherry! I love how freeing your homeschooling days sound! My children are still very young but this is a similar vision of how I want to homeschool. However I think I fear others’ opinions and would feel guilty for having this freedom. Did you feel like you were breaking the mold, going against others’ ideas (and maybe critical opinions)? How have you freed yourself from the “fear of man” in your homeschool? Genuinely curious! 🙂

    • Dear Korie,

      I think there were two reasons I stopped caring. The first one is that I was too stretched to care, and the second reason was that I was having too much fun to care 🙂 Seriously, reading books by John Taylor Gatto and Dr. Raymond Moore really helped. If you Google them you will find some really good information to help you start.

      • Thanks! I’m excited to check those out! And it’s possible I’ll experience the “too stretched to care” at some point in the future 😉

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