Unit Studies Revisited

It’s been well over a year since I posted anything about the nitty-gritty planning of my unit studies.  I’ve had several email questions lately wondering how I plan, so I thought it might be time for a new post on the subject.

The emails I’ve received have all been similar in the basic four questions I tend to be asked.

  1. How do you choose what you study each year?
  2. How do you plan your units?
  3. Is there any sort of curriculum you follow?
  4. How do you not overload?

I’ll take a few minutes to try to answer these questions in a way that makes sense.  (Planning is a very personal thing, so I have a hard time articulating how I plan sometimes.)

How do you choose what to study each year?

Our unit studies typically revolve around history and science.  Although I consider myself a Charlotte Mason style homeschooler, I follow the Classical model of a four-year cycle in the areas of history and science.  Basically, that means every four years we will be covering similar topics with the depth of understanding and expectations growing each time around.  Here’s the 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 are covered in their appropriate year, though.  I also include nature study (biology) each and every year.

I used to follow The Well-Trained Mind’s plan of history three days a week and science two.  For me, this seemed to drag each study out way too long.  I opted to create my own units to cover the history and science concepts in blocks of time and I haven’t turned back.  (With the exception of chemistry last year.  We did chemistry a couple times a week while history units were done in chunks of time.)

My children and I really like delving into a particular history or science subject.  We’re able to check out all sorts of library books, books on tape and videos that go with the theme.  We’re able to include whatever math, language arts or other subjects that might fit with the unit.  We don’t have to stop learning about something just because we’ve already done history three times in the week.  And, we’re able to end the unit and move onto something else when we’ve soaked in all we can handle.

How do you plan your units?

I always start by gathering information and supplies.  For instance, if I’m going to do a unit on Slavery in America, 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.   Oh, and I’ll also check my computer files for e-books and other resources I’ve stashed away.

I think I need to stop here and remind you that I keep fairly organized files, shelves and computer files, so the initial gathering of materials doesn’t take long at all.  All my resource books for history are placed in chronological order on a bookshelf.  I also keep file folders on various topics.  As I come across a great idea that I don’t want to forget, I copy it or tear it out from a magazine and file it in the appropriate folder.  You can get a glimpse of my file cabinet here.  I also keep history related literature together on a bookshelf so they are easy to find as well.  And, I suppose you might like to know that I have a folder on my computer for each academic area, so I can stash e-books in an organized way.

If I don’t have many resources on my shelves 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.  From my resources, I start a list of important topics I feel 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!  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 pieces of living literature for my children to read during the unit.  Plus one or two that I will read aloud and/or we’ll listen to on tape/CD.  All of our units rely heavily on living literature!

Either as I’m planning the unit or as we come to the end of it, I’ll be thinking about final projects.  You can read more about our projects here.

(I know this seems confusing.  I’m trying to write it clearly, but it would be so much easier for me to have you over for some tea and cookies and just show you this process.  It really isn’t as hard as it looks!)

Is there any sort of curriculum you follow?

When we’re talking about unit studies, the answer is yes and no.  If I come across a really great curriculum guide or library book with most of my topics covered, I’ll often make that my “spine”.  In other words, I will use that book for the majority of our studies, but I never hesitate to add or take away from that book.  An example of this would be using a prepared lapbook unit.  That lapbook unit will provide much of the material for our unit.  If I come across a hands-on idea that seems like it will help the children understand something better than the particular lapbook activity, I’ll ditch the lapbook activity and do the hands-on idea instead.

I have used in the past, and probably will use in the future, some really good curriculum for my unit studies.  I just 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 curriculum would be Story of the World, Mystery of History, prepared lapbooks from any company, Apologia Elementary Science, Considering God’s Creation, Diana Waring elementary materials, and Beautiful Feet units.  I’ve never used any of these “as is”, but they have each been great “spines” at one time or another.

How do you not 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. How do I not overload myself as I go about planning and preparing units?  I’ve been doing this 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.  Overplanning will burn you out on preparing your own units faster than anything else!

My best tips are:

  • 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 for 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, rather than dragging them out too long.

2. How do I make sure not to overload my children with a unit?  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.  🙂

I’ve tried to keep my units shorter and save project time 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!

Please feel free to ask questions!  I’m sure I haven’t covered everything.

Update:  You can find answers to several questions from this post by visiting Unit Study Questions Answered.


  1. Thanks for this post…you have great advice on unit studies. My problem is that this year I started doing both Am. History and World History, so I’m having a hard time figuring out when to do what. This is only my 2nd year homeschooling, so I’m still a rookie 🙂

  2. Cindy, This is a marvelous post. Many people need to read this. I’m bookmarking it!

    It’s so helpful to get inside someone’s head and see how they plan a unit study. Your bit about not spending too much time online researching is so true. It can be totally overwhelming. Starting with what’s on the shelf is wonderful advice.

  3. That is a very helpful and consice way to plan. I usually get over loaded in the planning. Maybe you could talk about how you add in language arts….if you add them into you units and they aren’t separate.

  4. Christine Guest says:

    Wow, this is so helpful, especially the part about overload

  5. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your system with the rest of us.

  6. I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling my own unit studies for next year or going with a curriculum that has already done it for me. This info helps me figure out how to do my own. Thanks again, dear friend, for helping me on my journey in teaching my precious children.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *