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Unit Studies! The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread?

How can you help your child turn a beloved interest into a comprehensive and engaging learning opportunity? Is it possible to cover multiple areas of learning while researching and learning about one topic?


But how?

A homeschool unit study is an educational method where a specific topic or theme is studied in depth, which can be a lot more fun than learning one subject at a time in a sometimes disjointed or unrelated way. The unit study approach allows students to explore a subject from multiple angles and in various ways, such as through reading, writing, research, and hands-on activities, but always having something to do with that one beloved subject. In this way, one can include math, language arts, reading, research, history, and science, all while learning about one overriding topic that your child already enjoys learning about, making it relevant to them, and therefore, hopefully, more engaging and fun.

For example, a unit study on the American Civil War might include reading historical fiction and nonfiction books about the war or biographies about its participants, studying primary sources such as letters and diary entries from soldiers, analyzing maps and timelines, and conducting research on key figures and events. Students might also engage in hands-on activities such as building miniature battlefields or creating their own historical fiction stories. They might also visit historical museums and battlegrounds and attend civil war re-enactments or living history events.

In addition to subjects such as history and English, unit studies can also include elements of other subjects such as science, math, and art. For example, in a unit study about the ocean, students might study marine biology, learn about ocean currents and tides, and create their own ocean-themed artwork.

A unit study about baseball might include watching baseball themed movies, attending a game, learning how stadiums are voted on, approved, and built, following the batting statistics of their favorite player, researching the history of the sport, learning how baseballs are made, how artificial turf is made, or how grass is grown and growing some of your own, reading biographies of the greatest players, and learning about the history of racial integration in baseball.

Unit studies can be formal or informally structured, and can be tailored to different age groups and abilities, allowing the entire family to be involved, if desired. They can be used to supplement traditional curriculum or as the primary method of instruction depending on your family’s preferences. The flexibility, hands-on approach, and integrated nature of unit studies make them a popular choice among homeschooling families.

How to start?

What are your child’s interests? What do they do in their unstructured free time? Start there and see what you can build on in order to broaden your child’s knowledge about a topic they already show interest in. One word of caution, though. Don’t let your parental enthusiasm for proceeding with a unit study override your child’s natural joy and love for a topic such that it turns them against wanting to learn about it due to focusing too much on it.

Let your child be the guide! If it’s not working, drop it and pivot to something that does click, like a key in a lock. As wonderful as unit studies can be, they aren’t for everyone. Good luck!

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We love doing this with our students! At our small school for students with learning challenges, we would do a six-week unit study every year (our interim semester) and the kids would come up with the most amazing projects and incorporate multiple subject areas- mermaids, World War II, chocolate, photography, dinosaurs- the topics were diverse and amazing. We found community mentors for the students, and they designed their own daily schedules and project presentations, and it was just the coolest time period each year. So motivating, especially for kids with learning changes, to see how they could put their “academic skills” to such meaningful use as to learn about and share their passions. My autistic daughter even wrote and illustrated…

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