How to do Relaxed Unit Studies

To my mind, a good unit study plan needs a little bit of structure and a whole lot of room to wiggle around and shoot off in all different directions. 

In case you aren’t familiar with homeschool unit studies, here is a nutshell definition:

Unit Studies approach a theme topic from several angles, encouraging activity and love of learning as well as discipline and responsibility.

Taken from the Homeschool in the Woods website.

While the tendency is to try and plan everything down to the molecule, moms can have much less stress and a lot more fun if they will hold any plans loosely.

After all, the greatest part of any unit study is Mom’s enthusiasm!

That, and these three ingredients:

  • A “spine” or a basic direction
  • Materials and tools readily available so you can take off and explore.
  • A way to report and record what you are learning.

Example: When we studied Laurie White’s King Alfred’s English together…

…we would read a chapter aloud, discuss, and then check out the references. We also added in the suggestions we found on her website, The Shorter Word, including checking out some videos from the library and trying our own hand at “illuminated” writing and reading Beowulf aloud. I even printed out the review and test pages just to familiarize my children with conventional “teach-and-test” learning (it was painless because the subject matter was so interesting).

No, I didn’t have a scripted plan that I followed, I just read ahead in the book or on the site a bit and had things in place for when we wanted to fit them in.

Along the way I recorded what we did every day in my planner and placed the written work and paper creations into our huge family binder for later reference.

Another way to do this is with a novel that everyone loves.

The little girls and I recently read A Little Maid of Province Town, which is a story about a girl of eight who’s father was captured by the British just before the Revolutionary War. It really held our attention, so we just had to learn more about the times, the war, etc. We did this by grabbing some books from the library on life in Colonial times and doing some notebooking pages, going on Google maps to find out just where Province Town was in reference to Boston, etc.

But what about fitting in ALL content areas?

I think this is where a lot of the stress comes from. When I first started in with unit studies I forced the issue and placed science and math in where it didn’t naturally fit. This is why learning can become a bore and a chore.

Then I realized that, as long as I am teaching math in a logical, understandable way with a curriculum or book that I trust, it’s OK to let these things show up naturally as we are discovering.

For instance, when we talked about the history of the English language, we were constantly calculating the spans between different kings, events, and wars. When the little girls and I were reading the book, A Little Maid of Province Town, a number of different types of fish were mentioned, so we just had to find out more about them.

For both studies, geography was obviously needed. We studied maps of Europe for the one, and maps of New England for the other.

Of course, taking an engaging science spine and going crazy with it will fill in a lot of science gaps, and it will feel as though everyone is eating ice cream instead of broccoli!

I recently shared all about this on my post How to do Relaxed Science.

mom of 15 tells how to do relaxed science

Two other tips I would like to share:

  • Make sure you are studying something that enthuses you as a person, or at least is taught from an angle that engages you.

If you are bored and uninterested, your lack of enthusiasm will be contagious!

  • If things begin to fizzle, stop and go on to something else. 

It’s sort of like trying to sit and watch all the sequels to Rocky; after a while, there just isn’t any spark left. Just because you haven’t completed the book or done everything in your plans, don’t fret. If you’ve enjoyed the little bit you have been able to do, your efforts have not been in vain.

For the tools of learning, I use the McGuffey readers and their vintage counterparts (with a few modern inserts), but for the rest of learning loose, informal unit studies have been our diet.

The most amazing thing about learning this way? It never stops. Instead of thinking knowledge comes in a box or page of fill-in-the-blanks, it is set free and flies and swirls in and out of our heads all day long.

How to do relaxed unit studies

Here is a link to some quality notebooking pages you can throw in. I hope they will be a great help!

free, quality notebooking pages link

The Record Book can help you write down all of the learning you are accomplishing:


4 thoughts on “How to do Relaxed Unit Studies”

    • I know there must be a number, but one that I particularly enjoy is Heritage History. It is an absolutely free site that relies on public domain books from years past that have been put into digital formats such as pdf’s and mobi (for Kindle). Just google Heritage History and you should be able to find it pretty easily.

  1. I think you have captured the essence of what unit studies are truly meant to be and showed us how to incorporate them into our school in a relaxed, natural way. I have a tendency to want to plan everything out and to know what is coming next but this is not the way that children learn best. They need to follow what inspires them. Your approach to unit studies allows this to happen. I always enjoy the tools you provide (The Record Book and notebooking pages) and find them very useful. Your approach to learning has brought so much pleasure and ease to our school days. Thanks for your insight and inspiration. I’m going to go “loosely” plan our next relaxed unit study. God bless


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