My oldest son, Elias, waits at the bottom of the stairs. When he sees me he announces, “I absolutely must learn more about the elements today.” Overhearing this, his brother, JoJo, rushes into the room, crosses his arms and says, “I like history better than science so I don’t really want to do that.” “Can I paint on something?” Walden asks with a mouth too full of apple sauce. And so another morning has begun and my three sons, ages 8, 6 and 3 have started the day brimming with strong opinions and breathtaking enthusiasm. I love this kind of energy, it thrills me to my core, but if I’m being totally honest here, I admit that if I’m not properly prepared for it (caffeinated), this unfettered enthusiasm is daunting.
This school year is different than others. Elias has begun to identify very specific learning objectives and Walden, no longer a baby content to follow in his brothers’ footsteps, wants a say in the lesson planning as well. I strive to craft lessons that will resonate for all three of my children, despite their range in ages and remarkably different learning styles and interests.
Unit studies have always been a big hit in our homeschool and now, more than ever, I appreciate their potential. This is not to suggest that we stick only to this learning method. There are many instances in our homeschool when interests and skill sets differ dramatically enough that other approaches work better. However, whenever there is the possibility of approaching learning together as a family, I seize that opportunity and do so by developing a fun unit study.
Many parents homeschooling with toddlers at their side find the balance between caring for a very young child and assisting older children with academics to be especially challenging. Once more, unit studies to the rescue! I find that Walden enjoys this sort of learning tremendously. Unit studies provide ample opportunity for make-believe, hands on projects, wild experimentation and arts and craft; each of which provides even the youngest learners a chance for meaningful participation in the day’s activities.
Before I begin planning a unit study, I find it helpful to consider the following:
- What have my kids been talking about this week? What sorts of themes have dominated their playtime? Dolphins, Genghis Khan, shipwrecks and mad scientists? There’s not a childhood obsession that I know of that can’t be incorporated into a worthwhile unit study.
- Identify specific academic and non-academic goals for the week ahead and pinpoint how focusing on a particular theme can best accomplish these.
- Gather amazing resources that will complement each child’s learning style; make it feel like Christmas! Have on hand a plethora of books of varying levels, some with pictures others with text; allow each child to gravitate toward the titles, visual styles and reading level that he or she selects. This is a wonderful way to do informal reading assessments and also for your child to safely explore more challenging works without any pressure. It’s a lovely chance for an older child to feel ok curling up with a picture book and enjoy the experience of getting lost in its images. Movies, art projects, field trips, interactions with people in the neighborhood, hands-on projects and experimentation all make this style of learning tremendously satisfying.
- Consider how best to present materials so that each child has age appropriate tasks and projects. Be certain to use techniques that address the learning styles of all of your learners.
My family recently enjoyed a unit on the California Gold Rush. We had a blast! My preparations looked something like this:
First I observed: What have my kids been talking about and exploring through play this week?
- Elias: The periodic table, explorers and wilderness survival skills.
- Josiah: History, world travel, archeological digs.
- Walden: Painting, camping, collecting outdoor treasures (stones, acorns, feathers etc.) for displaying on his nature shelf.
Then I translated: Specific academic and non-academic goals for the week ahead:
Chemistry, fine motor skills, history, nature studies, art, music, cooperative play.
After assessing the resources we had already on hand, I cruised around online for a few additional titles. In most cases, Pinterest or a good Google search will turn up most everything you’ll need. In instances when my kids are interested in something a bit esoteric, I often find my best bet for ideas is other homeschoolers in various education Facebook groups.
I like to begin a new unit with something visually stimulating like a film, YouTube clip or an especially compelling picture book. This time we began by watching The California Gold Rush: An American Experience (PBS), which was a nice starter for Elias. Shorter YouTube videos were a big hit with Josiah.
While the older boys excitedly began familiarizing themselves with new resources and information, I was able to give Walden my undivided attention. I don’t recall exactly what we did with our time together, but I do suspect it involved dinosaurs and more importantly uninterrupted time together in which he was the center of my focus.
After watching the videos, we turned our attention to some playtime with maps. Without being asked, Elias and JoJo instantly morphed into two young prospectors headed west to California seeking fame and fortune. Adopting a voice I’d never heard before, Josiah began pointing to his home state on the map and then using his finger, he suggested a proper route to get to California. Elias, also in character, objected loudly. The two proceeded to debate the best course to take until finally, amid peels of giggles, they reached a consensus declaring theirs “a perfect plan.”
To assist my three young prospectors on their journey ahead, we packed up a tent, pots and pans, and prepared all the fixings for a proper campsite. Walden was thrilled to participate in this activity. From the kitchen where I tackled my to-do list, I listened to the boys set up camp and figure out the best strategy for striking it rich. Their play was peppered with specific details extracted from the films they’d just watched.
Music breathes life into any kind of lesson. For this unit, we learned the story behind the song “Oh My Darling, Clementine” and had great fun learning to sing it as well.
After lunch we went outdoors for a nature walk. Along the way, we searched for rocks for Walden’s afternoon craft project. At the same time, we discussed the properties of gold and of pyrites, a mineral also known as fool’s gold. As we live near a town called Pyrites, this was an especially animated part of our discussion.
Upon returning home, our pockets bursting with rocks and miscellaneous treasures for Walden’s nature shelf, we removed coats and our new goodies were properly arranged. We pulled out a bottle of gold paint, brushes and Walden’s new rocks. With great seriousness, my little guy sorted, washed and dried each rock. “See if you can turn these ordinary rocks into gold” I suggested next, pointing out his pallet and paint brushes. While he worked on this, Elias and Josiah got back into character as two hapless prospectors. They happily set to work on a fun kit we’d picked up called the Gold Nugget Dig Kit in which they dug for pyrite. These activities kept the boys focused and challenged around our kitchen table for the better part of the afternoon.
The grand finale was when Walden and I excused ourselves and went outside to hide his golden rocks. We called out to Elias and Josiah who we led on a hunt to find riches!
That evening, and for many days afterwards, we browsed through a wonderful collection of stories about the California Gold Rush. Many of these titles follow below.
Children of the Gold Rush, Claire Rudolf Murphy
What Was the Gold Rush? Joan Holub
Gold Rush: Hands-On Projects About Mining the Riches of California
During the Gold Rush (What You Didn’t Know about History), Janey Levy
Gold Fever: Tales from the California Gold Rush, Rosalyn Schanzer
By the Great Horn Spoon! Sid Fleischman
How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush (How to Get Rich) An Adventurer’s Guide to the Fabulous Riches Discovered in 1848, Tod Olson
There are so many compelling ways to present information. Of all the methods I’ve explored, unit studies are among my very favorite. What’s your experience with this kind of learning? What sorts of themes have you explored in this way with the learners in your life?
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