For several years, our family has homeschooled with unit studies. It’s an easy way for us to cover the same basic material as a family and learn together no matter the age, taking the majority of the prep work our of teaching!
It also has meant that for us we can compile multiple smaller topics into a bigger unit if a certain child is really interested in sharks for instance, then we can either hone in on sharks or generally work on Marine Biology.
Why Should Homeschoolers Start Using Unit Studies?
What I like about teaching in units and what I tell every friend considering becoming a homeschooling parent is that whatever homeschooling style they believe in — structured classroom-style learning at home, unschooling, or anything in between — the unit study approach can be a profitable way to learn and teach!
There is such a wide variety of subjects to choose from that can give children a comprehensive education! In fact, focusing on a particular topic that all subjects revolved around helps solidify comprehension and understanding because of not shifting back and forth between ideas within each subject.
What are the Benefits of Unit Studies for Homeschoolers?
Thematic units are flexible and promote exploration of topics, which makes them perfect for children who love to explore and learn new things — the whole learning process becomes an adventure. Unit studies can be an effective way to make learning fun and make the curriculum more engaging.
The goal is to create a unit study that is focused on the topic that you want your child to learn about or what they are most interested in — because the goal is to let our children become engrossed in a topic because of a love of learning. Unit studies cover all ages, so they can work for everyone in your family or group of friends that is interested in the topic.
I love that it can reduce planning time because there is not one specific curriculum framework to follow like traditional schools or homeschooling methods like Classical Conversations or Charlotte Mason’s method. It can be a combination approach to do what suits your family’s learning styles best.
Multiple ages can be taught together.
Preschool can be taught with high school and middle school with younger kids and everything combined or in between. The whole family can learn together which cuts down on planning time. Everyone is studying the same thing at the same time instead of different topics. This allows younger children to be introduced to the same things as older kids; however, the older children can deep dive while younger students are introduced to ideas.
It means taking the same topic but making sure it’s tailored to different age groups, giving depth to the subject. There is always an opportunity for students of any age to dive deep into topics or learn about topics they may not have had experience with before or that they find particularly fascinating. Especially as children become older, there is a certain point where they can become autodidactic, taking control of some of their own learning where they can start researching independently!
This is where Bloom’s taxonomy really comes in handy. Say that a family has a preschooler, an elementary school student, and a middle schooler. The broader understanding can be applied to the preschooler who is introduced to key vocabulary and principles for basic understanding, the elementary student begins to apply and analyze what they learn, whereas the middle schooler can analyze, draw conclusions, and create based on what they know.
Subjects overlap and comprehension improves
Geography, Language Arts, Science, Arts & Crafts, Social Studies, and even Math can all be taught under a single concept. (Of course math doesn’t always fit the mold, but sometimes it does!).
Studies show that our memory and comprehension improve as we make connections. That’s how memories work! In fact we encode memories based on thematically similar studies.
I have found as a homeschool parent that as we study different subjects within the same theme, I can more easily see my children make those important connections for their “AHA!” moment. Or I can cross-reference ideas more easily.
Let me give you some examples.
Pretend your family is studying Botany.
- All of your spelling words can be botanical structures, plants, and other key vocabulary.
- All of your reading can revolve around gardening or plants — even fiction! In fact we read the My Side of the Mountain Series, the Secret Garden, one of the Vanderbeekers books, and other books all relating to flora and fauna.
- Language arts can also include poetry studies (because poets love to focus on just a theme, right? And this can also make great copy-work and memorization material.
- Science unit study as applied to Botany is all about studying things like photosynthesis, plant cells, plant structures, herbalism, and more.
- Art can include understanding color in flowers and nature that produce dyes. It can explore monochromatic paintings just like as leaves change colors, they show all the shades of a single color.
- History becomes learning about taxonomic classification (which is actually a science topic… see how that works?) through people like Linnaeus or the history of how a certain plant has been used medicinally.
- Geography can be learned through studying botanical gardens worldwide, identifying invasive and native plants, and learning the climate needs or certain plants.
- Music can study classical music inspired by nature. It can be listening to the sounds of nature.
- Math can be studied in terms of symmetry, in calculating germination rate, or multiplying the area of a garden plot.
Obviously this just scratches the surface and you get the idea, but what’s most important is that the students are seeing a cohesive view of not just a topic but the connections between subject matter.
How to Create Unit Studies for Your Home School Curriculum
The first step is to choose a theme for your unit study. A specific interest could be a theme like “coding” or “oceanography”. You could also choose to do a study on a particular country or time period in history.
You don’t have to buy unit study curriculum; all you need all you need to create your own unit study is to decide on a topic together that piques your child(ren)’s curiosity. Everything from there comes easily!
Once you’ve chosen the theme, compile all of the books that you need for this unit study and create a book list. Pinterest is also helpful when compiling ideas for your unit study – just search by keywords to find arts and crafts, pre-made lessons on a specific topic within your theme (for instance maybe you find a lesson plan that is all about the taxonomic classification system to use for studying individual ocean animals). Now bundle together everything that you’ve compiled so far – lessons, printables, and any other materials related to your chosen topic.
Compile book lists on a single topic to then do huge book hauls at your Local Library! It has been very rare in the last several years that we have walked out of our library without at least 75+ books at a time and 90% of them all on a single subject that we are studying together.
We also utilize ebooks and audiobooks through Hoopla, epic!, and other online books resources. This allows all of our children to read at their own time and even find books we couldn’t get in a timely manner at the library, but it also allows for us to listen to audiobooks that are well above grade level even for all of our children. In fact in 2020 our kids were 1, 3, 5, and 7 years old and they listened to and absolutely loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The level of great vocabulary they were exposures to was phenomenal and while there were of course parts that the younger kids didn’t really follow, we regularly checked in with them to ask what was going on and they could clearly articulate the basic story. And what a blessing it is to expose them to classic literature and otherwise out of reach works because of reading level by utilizing audiobooks.
Search for printables both free and paid to supplement specific lessons that add to the depth of your overall unit. You can find these on Teachers Pay Teachers, sites like mine who sell printable packs, or even searching for a certain term + “PDF” or “Unit study”
Tips to Start Learning With a Unit Study Today!
- Start with a topic that at least one person in your family loves!
- If you have homeschooled before, use the same homeschooling approach as before and just apply unit studies as an easy way to transition to thematic learning.
- Don’t stress over planning specific timelines. In fact, we had planned on a 6 week Ocean study that turned into 8 months. And we were all better for it!
Unit Study Resources
Which Pre-made Unit Study programs or Online resources do we recommend?
Maybe lesson planning isn’t your thing; that’s ok! In fact even as a former teacher, now homeschool mom, I sometimes make my own units, but I also buy or find free units online. When someone has created something amazing, why re-invent the wheel? Or when life is stressful, why pile more on your plate?
These are a few common ones we turn to when we’re not making our own thematic units; however, we also combine them on similar topics to make mega units and find more one-off units or additions to add to them too.
Our favorite Thematic Units
We have used homeschool unit studies for many years and there have definitely been some units that were more loved than others. Of course your family might love a particular theme that we didn’t enjoy as much, but I do think there is something to which themes are easier to deep dive into versus more surface level education or that are more hands-on/field trip heavy.
- Oceanography and Marine Biology
- Botany & Forestry
- The American Revolution
- Bison and Prairie land
- Food Preservation
As you choose units, think about how you will transition between topics. For instance one might do a lesson on way-finding as a good fit to transition from an ocean unit to an astronomy unit. Or Maybe a mini unit on herbalism to connect botany and a human body homeschool curriculum.
Our Unit Study Outlines
I am still trying to compile lists of what we used in each of our units. Bear with me 🙂 We personally so a unit or two per year or semester but I know a lot of families do one every 4-6 weeks.
- Oceans and Marine Biology
- North American Birds
- American Revolution
- Botany, Forestry, and Herbalism
Free Unit Studies or Topical Studies
This section deserves an entire page unto itself. But until I can get to it I am going to list just a few to get you started.
- Olympics Unit Theme Printable Activities
- While not all of there resources are free, The Good and the Beautiful does have a few including a great Marine Biology Unit that is 14 lessons.
- Free Botany Study materials
- Unit studies for each individual state and all 50 states
Inexpensive thematic units (under $5 each)
- Self-Awareness, Friends, & Family Bundled Units
- Pet theme learning and activity pack for pre-k through 2nd grade
- All About Spiders Learning & Activity Printable Pack
- Nature Study — Dandelions and Sunflowers
Check out my other blog posts on homeschool unit studies:
- The complete library of Revolutionary War resources for kids
- Here is how to use books and travel for homeschool
- Weekly Learning Themes & Free Planner Download
Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living on a farm in New England. She believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience and has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development. She is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!