An Untraditional Unit Study

by ChristinaPilkington on June 4, 2011 · 2 comments

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When I was first introduced to the concept of unit studies, it really appealed to me. Even as a public school teacher I could never understand spending 45 minutes reading a book, then the next 45 minutes learning history totally unrelated to the literature we’d just read. Then it was crazy to be whisked off to do math that wasn’t connected to anything we’d just talked about. Unit studies showed students many different ways to look at a topic- how it was connected to many academic subjects at the same time. It made much more sense.

But the more I researched and studied unit studies, the more I realized their limits. I loved how unit studies connected different topics, and many families do plan their unit topics around what their children are excited about learning, but there always seemed to be something lacking for me.

So, I’d like to share three suggestions for tweaking the traditional unit study to make it a little more sparkly, more relevant to your family, and to introduce you to a richer, unlimited world of fascinating ideas.  

Traditional unit studies focus on a single topic.  Whether it’s a period of history like the Civil War or a country like Sweden or Africa, unit studies usually try to immerse children in a subject so they get to know it very well.

My twist: Even if your child can get obsessed about one thing, it’s most likely he has several different interests going on at the same time. My son loves Legos, but he also enjoys making up stories and climbing. My daughter’s main love is reading, but she also really enjoys painting and talking with others. Why not combine several different things they love to do and look for the connections?

But don’t do it in a “let’s sit down and see how we can connect these topics for the next three hours and then you can play” way. Let it become a part of your lifestyle. Also, look for ways to enrich and expand the topics your children enjoy already. When you encounter new ideas in your travels around town or around the world, look for ways to connect those new things to the things they are already crazy about.

If you’d like to make sure you’re introducing your children to new topics or ideas, why not pick three things they might like to learn about?  Bring in some books or DVD’s, or better yet places to go or things to do, and see if anything captures their attention. Have a few things you want to learn more about and see how many ways you can tie them together.

Traditional unit studies usually focus on the “core” academic subjects as well as the usual fine arts, music and physical activities.  They usually don’t incorporate things like graffiti art, collecting lint, designing new make-up, or researching the history of duct tape artists. They usually stick to the safe subjects.

My twist: Here’s a game you might like to play. Take a topic and put it at the top of a sheet of paper. Under that topic write something that relates to the topic you just listed.  Keep going down the page, relating new topics to the topic right above.  Chances are by the time you reach the bottom of the list the last item will seem far removed from the first item. But it’s an interesting, engaging and very thought-provoking way to see how many things that seem totally unrelated do have connections.  The more we can connect our learning to diverse subjects, the more solid our understanding will be of the topic.

Encourage your kids to see connections in everything. If your family has loved raising baby chicks or learning all about Colorado for your next trip, or listening to country music together, look for ways to connect those things to something unrelated and not a traditional “academic” subject. Can you connect chickens to tornados? Colorado to two-headed dragons? Country music to jump roping?

Traditional unit studies are usually pre-planned for a specific amount of time.  Most families plan their topics at the beginning of the traditional school year and follow that plan without changing. They also decide how long they’ll study the topic – whether it’s a few weeks or few months.

My twist:  If your child wants to learn more about fashion designers this week, help her find out more about them (as well as introducing her to ways to connect fashion design to other ideas). But don’t ask her to stop after a month and move on to something different. If you feel concerned, you may want to bring to her attention other interesting objects or ideas, or suggest places to go and expand her world that way, but let her take her interests as far as she wants to go.

Take subjects and topics as they naturally occur in your lives. Look to the seasons, holidays, travels and things you love to do for inspiration. It’s hard to pre-plan what your children might be interested in learning about six months from now. When I find interesting things, I file them away, store them and make a note in the computer of what resources I have. Then as questions or situations come up, I know it’s the perfect time to bring those things out while interest is high.

Can you think of any other ways to tweak the traditional unit study?

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Leave me a comment below or shoot me an e-mail at  You can also receive free email updates of all the latest posts. Just type in your name and address in the right hand corner box at the top of the page.

 Photo Credit: Hiking

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  • Susan

    I am poking around on your site today, reading some older posts. I love these suggestions! I have always thought unit studies were a neat way for kids to learn, but my girls are not the kind who like me structuring things too much. Jenna does tend to like some structure, but it has to be of a sort she agrees to, or she rebels. Lauren certainly likes to create her own structure, not have anyone else do it for her. SO, a traditional unit study approach doesn’t work well here. My girls get tired and bored before it is officially “finished”. We seem to cycle through topics…learn a bit about something interesting, move on to something else, then return to the topic at another time and learn some more. Your suggestions make such good sense, and it’s pretty much how we’ve naturally settled into things here.

    • Anonymous

      I love your phrase “cycle through topics”. I feel the same way with my kids even though they’re still little. Whenever we come back to a topic again, it’s like seeing it again with fresh eyes. I’m amazed at how much easier my kids can grasp a skill or topic after getting away from it again. They don’t need more practice; they just need more time to let the info sink in.

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