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Learning With Unit Studies

by Patricia Carnabuci

hat’s that buzz about unit studies, and how can you integrate them into your family’s learning? Why might you want to? Let’s explore!

Back when I was in school, unit studies were called "themes" – bulletin boards would be full of projects about the Revolutionary War, Whales, or Winter – and there was a warm, settled feeling in knowing what I’d be learning about that week. As a child, I didn’t know what cross-curricular learning was, or what its benefits were, but I felt the comfort of the focus it brought to my day.

The unit studies approach is designed to give both in-depth and broad understanding of subjects revolving around a theme that interests the child. This integrated approach includes science, math, geography, art, music, history, language, literature, drama, and creative movement. It is often referred to as a multi-disciplinary or a thematic approach.

As an example, let’s take a look at "Whales" as a particular theme or unit study. Many themes have an inclination towards one particular subject – in this case, science. So, you may introduce whales at first from that perspective. What is their role in the ocean ecosystem? How many different species are there? What are their migration patterns? After studying whales through the eyes of science, you may go on to study whales in literature – the most famous example in fiction is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Then, perhaps, you will ask your children to do a research project on whaling history, or draw a full size whale on your driveway in chalk. How about studying Dutch whaling paintings, or studying whale population statistics? What an exhilarating way to learn!

The Unit Study approach is an experiential, hands-on approach to learning. When children go into such depth and spend a generous amount of time on each theme, their retention of the subject can be much higher than in traditional methods.

When the central focus is on one theme and all core subjects are integrated together based on that particular theme, the primary advantage, of course, is that the subjects are blended together and not learned separately. A child’s focus and awe is not split among many subjects, but can be channeled to create a learning experience that will be remembered for a lifetime!

There are many other advantages with the unit study approach:

1. Children of all ages and different levels can learn together.

2. Unit studies are relatively low in cost, especially if you create your own unit.

3. Because the studies are learner-generated, the child gets an in-depth understanding of each topic, and in turn, develops mastery and retention of the material.

4. Since there are no time restraints, the child is given ample time to think, experiment and discover each topic through his own natural way of learning.

5. Since unit studies are multi-aged, the younger child learns immeasurably from and through the older child.

6. The creative hands-on projects and activities are great fun!

7. Anything can spark an interest: Television, radio, books, and common conversations. This makes unit planning fairly easy.

How do you find the resources that you need to complete your unit studies?

Libraries are always a great source of various types of materials – make sure to look for both non-fiction and fiction books, as well as periodicals, encyclopedias, and even videos! Your local used bookstore or video rental store are also great sources for information.

Lastly, with the advent of the Internet, a whole new world of resources to support unit studies is available to you. It can not only help in your planning, but children (under supervision) can get a technology lesson along the way as well!

Virtually any topic can be researched online. If we take our example of "whales" again, there are many simple searches that can be done on your favorite search engine. Here are some fruitful keywords that you may use to help develop your whales unit study:

Whales Unit Study, Whales WebQuest, Whales Science, Whales Literature, Whales Math, … and the list goes on – let creativity be your guide!

Are you hooked yet? Unit Studies can be thrilling not only for your child, but for you as well. There is no one "right" way to complete a unit study – the possibilities are limitless, just like your child’s learning potential! Now it is time for you to dive in and create your own…

If you are new to homeschooling, or planning on using the unit study approach, there are many Websites, books and pre-planned units available free or for purchase.


Patricia Carnabuci is founder and CEO of the Home School Learning Network, (see ad on p. 50), and founder of Education World,