October 20, 2020

Unit Studies: A Naturally Exciting Way To Learn

Unit Studies: a naturally exciting way to learn. This is a freeing, motivating, and organic approach to education that allows and encourages children to dive deeply into a subject they care passionately about or discover an interest in something they had no idea they would really enjoy.

The beauty of Unit Studies is that there is no definitive guide to them! Blending a variety of subjects together by choosing to study a particular topic or theme has the power to make learning “stick,” especially in young children who thrive off of soaking up factual information.

Rather than trying to memorize a few isolated facts at a time, as is often the case with traditional schooling, and, as Andrew Pudewa says, “creates children who know virtually everything about nothing,” the unit study approach seeks to associate and correlate facts by going “an inch wide and a mile deep.

Currently, unit studies are a perfect fit for our family’s relaxed homeschooling method. We have four young children, and unit studies are an easy way to involve our whole family, even the little girls who want to “school like the big kids,” but don’t quite have the fine motor skills required for writing yet.

We don’t use the Unit Study method exclusively (I still teach math and phonics separately), but we use it generously, and in so doing, touch on a dozen different subjects at the same time.

I don’t plan on homeschooling with unit studies to the same extent I do now in the higher grades where I can see value in learning the disciplines of each subject, but with young children who are close together in age, unit studies are a perfect fit for our family’s current stage of life.

The following is a true example of how a Unit Study recently took place in our house.

One morning, the kids were playing outside and discovered a frog.

Or was it a toad?

They didn’t know, so they came to the door and asked me.

I take that back.

They didn’t ask me, at least, not in a nice, normal manner. They give me a miniature heart attack.

“Mom! There’s a brown guy in our backyard with arms and legs and he’s jumping!”

“You mean a bug?”

“No! A brown guy with arms and legs!”

After being momentarily paralyzed by fear, thinking some insane man was doing the Hokey Pokey in our backyard, I collected myself and peered out the patio doors, keeping the knife block on the counter within my peripheral vision. You know, just in case I needed it for self-defense.

I exhaled deeply.

Nobody was in the back yard.

Brushing down the hairs that were still standing up on the back of my neck, I followed our two oldest outside where they pointed out the four-legged amphibian in the window well.

“Oh, you mean a toad!”

“Yeah, a toad. We didn’t know if it was a frog or a toad, so we just called him a brown guy.”

Right then and there I determined that, in order to prevent further heart failure, it was of paramount importance that my children could decipher between a frog and a toad. (Turns out toads are frogs, by the way).

Of course, they wanted to keep the brown guy too, but in order to keep it, they needed to know what it eats and/or drinks, and how to keep it contained, happy, and most importantly, alive.

We read books about frogs, watched videos about frogs, hunted for frogs in the marsh at Grandpa’s, and read about the plague of frogs in Egypt.

We learned that frog legs are a delicacy in Asia and France (but I didn’t have the nerve to fry and eat them myself, so I suppose I ripped the kids off on that part of our unit study), and learned how to draw frogs.

We talked about how you can boil a frog in water by gradually turning up the heat so he doesn’t notice, and that launched us into a discussion on acclimatization in both Creation and culture.

I hadn’t planned to do a unit study on frogs this year, it just happened, and in the process, so did Bible, history, science, art, geography, social studies, phys. ed, and reading.

The only “challenge” with Unit Studies, some may argue, is that there’s no real way to measure how much your child has learned. It’s hard to build a test of a dozen different subjects when the commonality is a central theme that you don’t even own a textbook for.

Testing isn’t something that concerns me personally. I have a pretty good idea of what they know because I’m learning right alongside them, but for peace of mind, I think it’s wise and responsible to keep a record of the things we’ve covered in our unit studies in case they are ever called for by the powers that be.

The very best way I’ve found to do this is with Delightful Planning by Marcy Crabtree, a Unit Study planner designed specifically for homeschoolers.

The first 25 pages explain unit studies in much greater detail than I have here, answer the most frequently asked questions about the unit study method and help you plan your own unit study.

Sometimes unit studies are born out of a child’s spontaneous interest, as was the case with our frog study, but young children have a very limited view of the world that you get the privilege of opening up to them. A significant section of the planner is dedicated to helping you inspire that curiosity for other things.

But, back to record-keeping. As impossible as recording a unit study sounds, somehow Marcy made it happen.

Delightful Planning has it all covered. I’ve got a section for:

  • brainstorming,
  • a project planner,
  • monthly and weekly calendars,
  • a place to log the books we’ve read,
  • book report outlines,
  • learning journal pages,
  • a section just for planning and recording field trips,
  • and even a place to record our rabbit trails (which happen all the time!).

The best part about Delightful Planning is that because it’s printable, not only is it inexpensive (I’m so cheap, I printed mine in black and white, ha!), but I can print out as many or as few pages as we need so there’s no waste.

Will we ever use Unit Studies exclusively? Probably not (I’ve mentioned before that we’re not exclusivists), but at our current stage of life, homeschooling with unit studies is a truly fun and effective way of learning that accommodates all of our young children. Plus, with a planner that enables me to keep good records of the things we’ve studied and how we’ve studied them, I can look back on a school year in those moments when I think my children haven’t learned a thing, and think, “Oh yeah, we actually did cover a lot.”

Have you made unit studies a part of your homeschool? Which topic so far has been your favorite one to study? Have you found a good way to record what you’ve learned?

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