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What are Unit Studies?

What is a Unit Study?

Have you ever pursued a topic of interest, exploring it from different angles so as to learn how that topic intersects with the world in general? If so, then you already know the basics of how to build a unit study. Unit studies are, essentially, choosing a topic of interest and exploring that topic through the avenue of a variety of school subjects. Sometimes it is easy to incorporate all subjects into a unit study. Other times, the scope is more limited. Either way, a unit study can be a great tool for homeschooling parents.

Points to Ponder

Unit studies can replace most or all regular subjects for a full year or can be done on a short-term basis as a break from regular studies. Whatever your approach, here are some pros and challenges associated with unit studies.

Pros

  • Unit studies are interactive and hands-on, making this a great option for incorporating various learning styles.
  • You can go where your child’s (or your own!) interests take you, assured that your child is learning even while pursuing an interest.
  • Because information can be found online, at the library, or even in your own backyard, this approach provides a very inexpensive homeschooling option.
  • Once a topic is exhausted or interest wanes, you can move on, allowing anywhere from a few days to an entire year to be consumed by a unit study.

Challenges

  • Unit studies are planning intensive. Some pre-assembled unit studies are available for purchase, sometimes even for free, but these only cover short-term needs. Families desiring to make unit studies the primary curriculum option will need to have the time to put into preparing each unit study.
  • Some subjects can be difficult to incorporate fully. For instance, while language arts and math can be tied into many unit studies, it is easy to miss important concepts and skills if a targeted curriculum is not used for those subjects.

Unit Studies for Every Stage

Whether you want to build a short-term unit study or make it your primary source of curriculum, here are some ways to incorporate unit studies into every stage.

Starting Out

Remember, this stage is all about learning through play! Because of that, this is one of the easiest and best stages for implementing unit studies.

When your child shows an interest, whether it is in bugs, buildings, trains, animals, or any other topic, find ways to learn about that interest from a variety of angles. Then, have fun! Here are some ways to explore interests in this stage:

  • Check picture books out of the library and read them together.
  • Visit museums, the zoo, or other child-friendly locations that support your child’s interest.
  • Play games together related to the interest.
  • Introduce vocabulary pertaining to the topic. Even if your child is not ready to learn the “big” words, go ahead and use them yourself to build familiarity.
  • Find art and craft projects that relate to the topic. Using clay, finding coloring pages, drawing pictures, or creating mosaics are just a few examples.
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition. It really is okay to read the same picture book a hundred times!
  • At this age, it is very safe to walk away and pursue other interests when the topic of choice becomes less interesting to your child or when you begin to feel that you have exhausted all of your creativity.

Getting Excited

Unit studies continue to be ideal through the early elementary years. During this stage, though, they begin to transition to a slightly more academic focus. You still want learning to be fun, but pay attention to your topic of interest. Contemplate how much time you think you can cover, and plan accordingly. Also, consider whether or not all subjects can be effectively taught through this topic.

Be sure to keep track of what you and your child are learning! You can choose to use lapbooking or notebooking to process through your unit study, or you can simply prepare a folder to keep a booklist, vocabulary words, projects, etc.

Here are some ideas for incorporating various subjects into your unit study:

  • Readers and Read-Alouds. This is the easiest one! Head to the library and do a topical search, looking for books that relate to your topic of interest. Look for fun picture books as well as fiction and non-fiction chapter books. Don’t forget to ask your librarian for help!
  • Language Arts. While grammar and language mechanics might take a little more work, unit studies offer a variety of ways to teach language arts in this stage. Choose fun copywork selections for your child from your favorite picture books. Use those exercises to point out parts of speech and punctuation. Also, build spelling and vocabulary lists from your library books.
  • History, Geography, & Science. These will vary based on your topic. Explore relevant people and the time frame in which they lived. Keep a timeline. Use maps regularly.
  • Math. Use your topic to create word problems or counters to practice age-appropriate math concepts.
  • Art. Create dioramas. Recreate period art. Read about artists contemporary to the time period being studies. If you’re studying animals or plants, draw pictures of them.

Beginning to Understand

Unit studies can continue to be an effective curriculum approach in the later elementary years and on into middle school or junior high. In general, you can use the same approach used in the Getting Excited stage to build unit studies in the Beginning to Understand stage. Here are a few tips for digging a little deeper:

  • Start encouraging essays and book reports during this stage. In the early years, these do not have to be incredibly long or deep. But, as your child approaches high school, begin challenging him a little more.
  • Make sure that math training is cohesive and covers the concepts needed before entering high school.
  • Consider a grammar workbook or curriculum to ensure a solid grasp of language before high school.
  • Continue keeping a timeline and incorporating map exercises into each unit study.

Learning to Reason

If your student hopes to move from high school to college, unit studies might not be the best overall high school curriculum approach. But, even for the college bound student, unit studies are a great approach to electives.

When considering unit studies for high school, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Certain specific courses like algebra, chemistry, biology, and government may be required for graduation, whether your student is on a college track or not. Be sure to check your state guidelines before planning the high school years so you can meet all requirements.
  • As a general rule, 60 to 90 hours of work on a subject equals half a high school credit (again, this varies by state, so check your state guidelines). A full credit would require 120 to 180 hours. By keeping track of time spent diving into a topic and finding measurable ways to record progress, you can build a course description and ensure that your unit study is sufficient for high school credit.

A Few More Thoughts

While unit studies do tend to be labor intensive, their flexibility appeals to many homeschoolers, both as a long-term and a short-term option. Whether you are deschooling, trying to figure out your child’s learning style, or just needing a change, unit studies can provide a great option for your family.

With five kids in their teen and early adult years, Rebecca shares the many ups and downs of parenting, homeschooling, and keeping it all together. As the Well Planned Gal she mentors women towards the goal of discovering the uniqueness Christ has created in them and their family and how to best organize and plan for the journey they will travel.

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