What is the Unit Studies approach to education?
Over the last seventeen years of homeschooling, I’ve decided to call myself a relaxed, eclectic homeschooler.
So why in the world am I so in love with unit studies?
I can tell you in one word — organization. I just love the way they’re organized!
My brain processes information in exactly the way unit studies provide information, so we’re a match made in heaven.
My kiddos agree.
What is a Unit Study?
Unit studies integrate various subjects — math, science, language arts, history, geography and the arts — into one central topic. You learn about that topic in an interesting and engaging way that will captivate your kids and make them want to learn more.
Curious children view the world as a whole, not in the segmented pieces (geography, history, geology, biology, etc…) in which educators tend to present information. What better way to capture a child’s attention than through unit studies?
They’re popular with many homeschooling families because they provide a hands-on , cross-curricular approach to learning. It’s a wonderful way of immersing children in real-life learning.
I typically create my own unit studies (instructions below) because that’s the best way for me to completely individualize them to what we want to learn. But I occasionally use pre-planned unit studies as well.
Unit studies are a fantastic way to learn as a family with multiple ages and interests!
Amanda Bennett, a unit study author, defines them as:
“. . . an in-depth examination of a topic (space, trees, cars, etc.) that approaches the topic from many academic disciplines—geography, science, history, art, etc. It is a complete immersion into the topic so that the student will see things as a “whole” instead of as disjointed bits and pieces learned throughout his education.”
Are Unit Studies Really an Educational Approach?
You know how we talk about the Montessori method, developed by Maria Montessori, and the Waldor method, developed by Rudolf Steiner, or the Reggio Emilia method, developed by Luis Malaguzzi? Are unit studies really a method like those?
In my opinion, the answer is yes. It may not be a stand-alone approach like the other methods, and it may not have been developed by a single individual, but it’s still a great way of learning, or a great educational approach. In our homeschool, we study math daily, separate from our unit studies, because I’ve only rarely been able to fit math concepts into our unit studies.
This method lends itself so well to multi-age education and interest-led learning that I use them all the time. In fact, my kids tease me that I can turn anything into a unit study. And they’re right!
What Are Literature-Based Unit Studies?
We’re all huge bookworms at our house, so I use a lot of literature-based unit studies. If you’re raising voracious readers, you’ll probably find them very effective, too. Instead of building a unit study on, say, polar bears, you’d build the unit study around a book.
One of the first literature-based unit studies I ever created was centered on Farmer Boy from the Little House series. We were just enjoying it as a read aloud when I noticed how rapt my boys’ were. They were practically drooling over the idea of an always-full donut jar.
They asked me if we could figure out how to make the twisted donuts that turned themselves over in the oil. I just went along with it. Then they wanted to know how to render tallow and make soap. Then they wanted to try cutting and insulating ice blocks (it happened to be winter).
I just kept agreeing to all of their requests, and we learned a holy ton of homesteading skills from that book!
That’s what a literature-based unit study is. Just read and ask questions and find answers and pursue interests. Almost any book can be turned into a unit study.
The Benefits of Unit Studies:
- Learning is interest-led, delight-directed and therefore much more effective.
- Curiosity is indulged and encouraged and rewarded.
- Kids remember that which they choose to learn.
- Learning goes deep.
- They learn how to learn.
- Learning is interconnected because it’s cross-curricular.
- Learning is meaningful.
- Learning is exciting.
- Unit studies are simple and easy to use.
- Multi-age and multi-ability, which saves time and money.
How to Plan Unit Studies for Your Homeschool
1. Decide on a topic. I always have far more topics than we could ever study in a million lifetimes. Just look to your daily life. Do you have a trip to the beach planned? Learn about the ocean: marine biology, the layers of the ocean, how sand is formed, sailing vessels and different types of ships, pirates, the physics behind the displacement of water, the chemical makeup of ocean water, the effects of pollution, etc… Do you have an upcoming trip to the mountains? Learn about mountains: plate tectonics, geology of different mountain formations, local wildlife, mountain ecology, geography, the effect of mountains on weather patterns, etc… Are you reading something interesting? Keep a running list (in your phone) of questions your kids ask.
2. Decide on a purpose, objective or goal. You don’t have to designate standards or create a scope and sequence or anything, just a simple objective. What is the answer to the question that inspired this unit study? Or what would you like your kiddos to understand when this unit study is finished?
3. Gather information and supplies. I always start in our library, because we always include living books in our unit studies. Sadly, my kids know better than I do what we have and what we don’t (mom brain is real!), so I always ask them for help. After assessing what have, I check the library. I prefer physical resources to online (because I totally lose my kids if I turn them loose online for even a moment) so the library comes before internet searches. If I still need more resources, I’ll google our topic. I’ll usually search for free resources first, then paid if I can’t find what I need. I like to include inspiring biographies whenever possible. Don’t forget to check Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes and other resources.
4. Keep a spreadsheet of things related to your topic that you want to cover. I keep them in a spreadsheet because every notebook I try to keep disappears (ah, the joys of a large family!). I have one spreadsheet labeled questions, where I keep track of ideas for future unit studies or projects. Then I create a separate spreadsheet for each unit study we undertake, where I jot down activity ideas, our books and other resources I’ve run across, like YouTube URL’s or URL’s to articles or documentaries. Before you know it, you’ll have a list long enough to fill a couple of weeks of learning. Unit studies don’t need to be an particular length. I always end up with far more than we can actually use. Don’t let this take you a ton of time. I probably spend less than an hour gathering resources and supplies and building my spreadsheet.
5. Remember that you are building this unit study for your family, and make it work for you. I typically only use about half of the resources I accrue, but I don’t worry about it. If my kids aren’t interested in a particular resource, we ditch it and move on. I’ve found that unit studies should never last longer than a month for my kids. We prefer them to last about two weeks or less. I encourage you to explore the rabbit trails you encounter along the way. We’re all happiest with very relaxed unit studies.
6. Choose activities or projects to complement your topic and build understanding. These keep the unit studies fun and interest high for the kiddos. Activities could include a field trip to someplace historical, visiting a cultural celebration, cooking up a local delicacy, or anything you can think of. Sometimes I even count a movie and popcorn as an activity. I usually shoot for one activity per week of unit study so as not to stress myself out too much.
7. Implement your unit studies in your homeschool however you like. 🙂 In our homeschool, we work on math for under an hour each day, and use the remaining two hours (we shoot for 3 hours per day of homeschooling) to work on our other subjects. When we have a unit study going, those two hours are spent on the unit study, and I try to start the day with the highest-interest, most active activity to bring the kids running to the table in the morning instead of having to roust them out of the corners and drag them by their ears. Most of all, have fun! Unit studies are a great way for kids to gain a love of learning!
Resources for Unit Studies:
Techie Homeschool Mom Lots of fun, online unit studies.
Unit Studies by Amanda Bennett Hundreds of options for grades K-12 in all subjects.
The Good and the Beautiful Science Unit Studies Geared to grades K-6, with extensions for grades 7-8. The Good and the Beautiful science units are faith-based, but focus on only very basic Bible principles, allowing all Christians to use the units and add in their specific beliefs.
Five in a Row Literature-based unit studies for elementary grades
Our Journey Westward Charlotte-Mason-style, nature-based unit studies for grades K-6
Home School in the Woods History-themed unit studies with lots of hands-on activities
Homeschool Share Lists of hundreds of FREE literature-based unit studies, divided up grade levels.
AlWright Unit Studies Topical unit studies by Kim Wright
Funtastic Unit Studies Science unit studies for elementary and middle grades
Would you like to know more about the other homeschooling methods?
Click the links to learn more about each of the following Homeschool Methods:
Reggio Emilia Approach(also known as project-based homeschooling)
Unit Studies Approach
Do you use unit studies in your homeschool? If so, we’d love for you to share your favorite resources in the comments below!