Some of you may be wondering what a unit study is?
A unit study is an approach to teaching that is popular among homeschoolers. Instead of teaching many subjects in isolation, you choose a theme and weave the learning of many subjects through one topic.
Let’s say you want to teach your child about the American Revolution. You would use the American Revolution as a theme to also teach grammar, writing, spelling, vocabulary, economics, and even more history.
Because nothing in the world stands alone, you can be creative with unit studies. They’re also useful when you are teaching multi-age children because you can teach one topic as a group, and then give each child individual work that is appropriate for his or her ability.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
–Leonardo da Vinci
Unit studies shouldn’t replace core subjects like grammar and math, though, but they’re a way to make grammar and math more relevant to the child’s life. When learning is relevant, children are more motivated to learn.
How does a unit study work then?
Let’s take the subject of Monarch butterflies. Children see butterflies, and they are always fascinated by them because they’re beautiful, but they’re also seasonal. It’s not everyday children see butterflies which makes butterflies all the more delightful.
Using the topic of the Monarch butterfly, we are going to teach grammar, writing, spelling, vocabulary, poetry, math, science, geography, art, and history.
Begin by classifying the Monarch butterfly in as detailed or simple a description as seems fitting. If you have a seven-year-old, teaching him the definition of an insect may be enough, but if you have a ten-year-old child you may want to teach about taxonomy; the classification of things in the natural world.
You would then teach the four-stage life cycle of the butterfly beginning with the egg, caterpillar, pupa, and eventually the birth of the butterfly. Children should learn about what the butterfly eats, and they are extremely interested in what eats the butterfly.
As you continue teaching everything there is about a butterfly that would interest an elementary age child (or beyond), you then want to think in terms of subjects. How will you fit what you’re teaching into subject categories to create a unit study?
Teach the names of the different parts of the butterfly and the definition of any terms associated with the Monarch and its life cycle. Draw a diagram of the different parts.
Practice sketching some butterflies with your child, and then give the child paper and colored pencils and let him draw his best butterfly. He does not have to stick to the colors or pattern of the Monarch butterfly.
Teach about the migration of the Monarch and locate the various points of departure, migration paths, and points of arrival on a map. Each year there are Monarch watches, so if you were teaching about Monarch butterflies in the autumn or spring, you could have your child follow the live updates of the Monarch’s migration.
Calculate how far the butterfly travels during migration and break the journey down into months, weeks, and days. Discuss how many times it flaps its wings per second, per hour, and per day. Children love doing calculations like this.
Have your child write a paragraph or more about the Monarch butterfly. In his paper, ask him to use some of the new vocabulary he’s learned.
You can then teach him grammar and punctuation through his writing according to what he would learn next in his grammar book. In other words, you teach his next grammar lesson(s) through the unit study.
It’s a good time to correct any misspelled words too which covers spelling!
Poetry is an important subject to teach children. A unit study in Monarch butterflies would be a good time to introduce the classic poem by Christina Rosetti, Caterpillar.
Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.
Take him to the library to check out books about butterflies. Take him to a local nature museum so he can see butterflies and examine them up close. If you live in an area where there are Monarch butterflies, you can take him out to look for them.
These are just some of the ways you can teach basic subjects through a unit study.
Unit studies are especially useful when children have a particular interest; this is the best time to create a unit study.
For instance, if you’re reading a history book about the Middle Ages, boys usually become intrigued with the idea of squires learning how to become knights.
You would replace Monarch butterfly with “knight” and follow the same pattern of breaking down what they are learning into parts held together with a cohesive theme.
One of the strategies that John Taylor Gatto taught me is to make learning relevant for your children. Children learn best when they are hands-on in the world doing things, when they are interested in what they’re learning, and when learning is enjoyable for them.
“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.”
There are subjects they need to learn because they need to learn them, like how to read and write, but the more creative you can be when you teach, the better your children will learn and the more they will love learning.
Unit studies is one of the many ways you can be creative.