From the time I used the Five in a Row curriculum with my little bitties up until now, I’ve loved unit studies. Whether they are literature, science, or history-based, unit studies weave our learning together in meaningful and often exciting ways. You can learn how to plan a unit study in four simple steps!
But, wait. I’m an eclectic Charlotte Mason homeschooler, why would I be in love with unit studies? They are wonderful modes for immersing children in real-life learning!
Not everything we do in our homeschool revolves around a unit study, just like not everything we do follows Charlotte Mason’s principles exactly. We do what fits our family in various seasons of learning. That can look like a Charlotte Mason-inspired day for some subjects and unit study style learning for subjects that happen to fit into our current unit theme.
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How To Plan a Unit Study
I personally love to create my own unit studies since they can be designed to meet our needs perfectly. However, there are certainly oodles of resources (free and to buy) available if planning a unit isn’t your thing.
When I post on my blog about designing unit studies, I get a lot of traffic and plenty of comments, which lets me know that this is a hot topic. So begins a four-part series of how I’ve added unit studies to our school plan over the years.
In this post, you’ll learn briefly how to plan unit studies. Next time, you’ll learn how to add meaningful projects for unit evaluation. And finally, I’ll show you how I’ve used literature, science, and history topics to design short-term and long-term studies in our homeschool.
A. How do I choose what to study each year?
Our unit studies typically revolve around history and science topics. Remember, the eclectic part of eclectic Charlotte Mason homeschooling? Well, I follow the Classical model of a four-year cycle in the areas of history and science. Basically, that means every four years we cover similar topics with the depth of understanding and expectations growing each time around.
Here’s the science and history plan I’ve followed from the beginning:
- Year 1 – Ancient History / Biology
- Year 2 – Medieval History / Earth & Space Sciences
- Year 3 – Early American History / Chemistry
- Year 4 – Modern American History / Physics
Of course, I don’t limit myself to only doing these units or studies each year. I do make sure each of these is covered in its appropriate year, though. I also include nature study (biology) each and every year.
I used to follow a plan of teaching history three days a week and science two. This seemed to drag each study out way too long, so we now complete unit study concepts in blocks of time. In other words, we focus on a science unit until completion then move into a history unit or the occasional unit based on a piece of literature.
My children and I really like delving into a particular history or science subject in this way. We’re able to check out library books, audiobooks, and stream videos that go with the theme. I can choose to include math, language arts, or other subjects that might fit with the unit. And, we don’t have to stop learning about something just because we’ve already done history three times in a week. Not to mention, we can end the unit and move on to something else when we’ve soaked in all we can handle.
B. How do I plan a unit study?
Gather Unit Study Information and Supplies
I always start by gathering information and supplies. For instance, if I’m going to do a unit on Slavery and the Civil War, I’ll start by going through all my files, curriculum guides, and bookshelves to see what I already have by way of ideas and resources. I’ll also check my computer files for PDF files and other resources I’ve stashed away.
You should know a few things…
- I keep fairly organized files, shelves, and computer files, so the initial gathering of materials doesn’t take long at all.
- All of my resource books and living literature for history are placed in chronological order on a bookshelf. Science books are grouped by topic.
- I also keep file folders on various topics. When I come across a great idea that I don’t want to forget, I jot a note or make a copy and file it in the appropriate folder.
- Much like the physical file folders, I keep folders on my computer for each academic area, too. It’s easy to stash PDFs to find quickly.
- And, of course, I keep organized Pinterest boards to round up great ideas as I stumble upon them.
Find Additional Unit Study Resources
If I don’t have many resources on my shelves/computer already, I’ll go to the internet next and type in searches for free units based on the topic I’m planning. This will usually lead me to more information than I care to have, so I limit internet searching as much as possible.
If I still don’t have enough, I’ll check the local library. Often, by typing a keyword into the library’s search engine, I’ll find at least one really good book that offers teaching or activity ideas on the subject.
Start a List of Important Topics and Resources
From my gathered resources, I start a list of important topics that need to be covered. I simply jot them down in a notebook. As I make topic notes, I’ll also jot down great activity ideas or literature suggestions I run across from the resources.
All of this eventually fleshes out into a full unit! It will usually cover several academic areas, but I don’t purposely try to include math and language arts since those are separate subjects in our homeschool. I NEVER get to all the activities that are jotted down in the initial planning. As the unit progresses, I pick and choose what will work best based on how my children are responding to the study.
I might note here that during the planning stage, I almost always pick out one or two living books for my children to read during the unit. Plus one or two that I will read aloud and/or we’ll listen to on audio. All of our units rely heavily on living literature!
C. Do I use unit study curriculum?
If I come across a really great curriculum guide or library book that covers most of the important topics, I’ll often make that my “spine”. In other words, I will use that book to guide the majority of our studies, but I never hesitate to add or take away from that book.
Aa an example, I sometimes use a prepared lapbook guide to provide much of the material for our unit study. But, if I come across a hands-on idea that seems like it will help the children understand something better than a particular lapbook activity, I’ll ditch the lapbook activity and do the hands-on idea instead.
I have used some really good prepared curricula for my unit studies. It’s just that I rarely use them “as is”. In other words, I use them in ways that meet our family’s needs rather than how I’m “supposed” to. Some examples of great unit study type curricula would be NaturExplorers, The Story of the World, The Mystery of History, prepared lapbooks from any company, the Exploring Creation Series, Considering God’s Creation, and History Revealed.
D. How do I prevent unit study overload?
Well, this question could actually have two meanings: How do I not overload myself as I go about planning and preparing units? And, how do I make sure not to overload my children with the unit?
1. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
I’ve been doing this for a long time. In the beginning, I did overload myself. I spent WAY too much time planning, preparing, scouring the internet, searching the library, etc. Over-planning will burn you out on preparing your own units faster than anything else!
Tips to avoid unit study preparation overwhelm:
- Don’t plan too many units per year. (I only plan approximately six per year.)
- Use a good spine like a prepared hands-on curriculum and tweak it to fit your needs.
- Don’t try to pull in too many resources or ideas.
- Try to get as much planning done as possible during school breaks. (I get the basic planning done for all units over summer break.)
- Don’t try to teach everything about a subject and don’t try to do every wonderful activity you come across.
- Keep units shorter as opposed to dragging them out too long.
2. Don’t overwhelm your children.
Oh, I have! And, believe me, I knew it. When you’ve planned too much or the unit has gone far too long, your children will not hesitate to let you know they’re tired of the subject. Listen and pivot then learn as you plan the next unit study.
I’ve tried to keep my unit studies shorter and save “project time” (to be covered in the next post) for the rabbit trails that interest my children most. This way, they get the basics while delving deeper into parts of the unit that are most meaningful to them. We all win that way!
Other Posts in This Series
- Unit Study Project-Based Learning (with links to our unit study posts)
- Planning a Small Unit Study (how I planned a magnet unit)
- Planning a Large Unit Study (how I planned a slavery and Civil War unit)
Our Journey Westward Unit Studies
Over the years, we’ve enjoyed many unit studies in our homeschool. You can find an index of all those studies here, or check out the studies listed below.
Let me teach you more!
I’ve covered the topics of unit study planning and project-based learning in very helpful homeschool masterclasses. Grab a notebook and pen, you’ll learn a bunch!
Unit Study Masterclass$20.00