Unit studies are both a fun and frugal way to home-school your children. Unit studies are theme-based or one-topic ideas studied thoroughly using art, literature, music, social studies, science and sometimes-even math. Unit studies allow you to use your library, community resources, the Internet, and a minimum of supplies to enable your children to learn in a fun and relaxed way. Because unit studies can be adapted to any age level or academic level, multiple aged children can all participate in the same unit study. I allow my children to participate in deciding what and how they will learn, but you can make your unit study as structured or unstructured as you prefer.
1. The first step in creating a unit study is to decide on a topic. The topic can be anything that you or your children find interesting or want to learn. My daughter has chosen to start at the beginning of history and proceed through to current events in the three years that would be middle school in public school. We have studied creation and evolution, early man and first civilizations, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient China, and spent the last semester doing Celtic customs and the Middle Ages. We also do science topics and this year she has done habitats of fish (with her Grandpa), volcanoes, crystallization, and physics of force and motion.
Ideas for topics include historical eras such as early American history, African American history or ancient cultures. Science topics include weather, electricity, and snakes. Literature units can be created from books like the Diary of Anne Frank or Sarah Plain and Tall.
2. After selecting a topic, I have found it easiest to see what my library has and base our study on the available resources. I also look up online unit studies on the same or a related topics for ideas. Our library allows us to reserve books online and have them delivered to our local branch. I check out books both fiction and non-fiction, art books, videos, music, science books or science project ideas, cookbooks and anything else that I can find. Sometimes the adult section has better videos. We also use a philosophy borrowed from Charlotte Mason called living books. A living book is a fictional book that takes place in a historically correct era or has accurate science, art or other backgrounds. Living books allow the reader to “be there” and get a better feel for the era or topic that you are studying. For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a unit on African American history, Little House on the Prairie for a unit on pioneer life, and Diary of Anne Frank for WWII.
3. After you have a list of books and resources from your library, take the list and brainstorm with your children. What community resources are available? Do you have an art museum with a Native American art section for a unit on Indian Pueblos? Is there a Greek section of town to walk through and a restaurant for a unit on Greece? Is there a lake or river nearby for a unit on fish habitats? I often have to wait until I have the books on science, art, or cooking to decide which activities to do for these sections.
Specific ideas to do in your unit study include reading, keeping a journal, writing, spelling, cooking, acting TV shows, plays or puppet shows. Other ideas include watching videos, going on field trips to museums or community events, creating dioramas, murals, mobiles, paper dolls, sculptures, or posters. Science topic ideas include collecting, observing, doing experiments, or going on nature walks.
The Internet has a vast collection of resources from virtual tours, online games, interactive sites, printable worksheets or coloring pages, etc. I always do a topic search to see what is available to add to our resources.
Sometimes you can find a game to play that goes well with your topic. A good example would be Monopoly for the Industrial Revolution, Operation for anatomy or Ring Around the Rosy for the Middle Ages (explaining what the words meant and why children played it).
4. After brainstorming all of our ideas and resources, I put it all together. First, I create a bibliography for library materials, make a separate food list if applicable, list field trip ideas, and create an activity and supply list. Then for library materials, I write down on my calendar when I am going to need to reserve the materials. I also tuck the food list into my day planner so I remember to get those items. Then I look at the activities that we are planning to do and decide how to obtain supplies frugally. For example if we are going to have a Greek dinner, I will watch for coupons or sales on pita bread. We already have a collection of old sheets and bedding that has been everything from togas and stage curtains, to hoop skirts and tents. I also look up field trips ideas to see if we need reservations, if there is an entrance fee, and are there available discounts or free days.
5. As you can see, unit studies are quite a bit of work. We do not do more than one big one per semester that we really get into and then a few smaller ones that take less energy and planning. I usually plan unit studies a semester ahead of time and check out any books I need for planning. I have discovered that by focusing on one area and incorporating fun into their studies, my children seem to retain and understand more than they did before. I believe that it allows them to fully engross themselves into a topic and sometimes even become the topic in playacting; therefore, they connect better and remember more.
Some people try to incorporate math into unit studies. I have found that you can do math related activities like learning about a foreign country’s currency or counting rocks in a collection, but I do not believe it is a good substitute for a math curriculum of its own.
We do a combination of literature, science and social studies units, even though you can incorporate science into a social studies unit and vice-verse, I still think you need the focus on each area to achieve a balanced education.
To do unit studies with more than one age group, just modify the activities somewhat. Younger children can read easier books, make simpler art projects, etc. than older children. I often have my oldest show and explain things to my youngest, which helps her to be a patient and thoughtful person and helps the younger child to learn. When teaching younger children, the older ones can be reading or working on projects on their own. It helps me to keep things straight when everyone is studying the same topic.
I keep the expense for a unit study to a minimum by using the library instead of buying unit studies or books, creatively looking for supplies from what we already own or thrift stores, and looking for discounts and free days for field trips. For each big unit study, I usually budget for one bigger craft or field trip, but it is not necessary.