We decided to homeschool Ben at the age of 3 when he taught himself how to read, and I was sure he was a genius (he’s not). By the time he started kindergarten, his geniusness didn’t matter anyway because it was crystal clear that school would not be for him for other reasons.
He was never still, never quiet, and was reading several grades above his grade level. I could hear the kindergarten teacher in my head — Ben, sit down! Ben, be quiet! Ben, leave that alone! Ben! Honestly, I’ve spoken those words a few times myself!
At the time we made the decision we would homeschool, I knew no one doing it. I had heard of this method of educating children, but at that time, I had not one friend (or acquaintance even) who was actually educating their own children at home. So like any modern-day mother, I turned to a friend of a different sort — Google.
By the grace of God, I learned early on about unit studies, and even better, literature-based unit studies — aka: Five in a Row (FIAR). In fact, stumbling upon the online community at FIAR was the best thing that could have happened to me early on. I had found my people — moms who wanted to educate their kids in a way that was fun and interesting and included wonderful literature. A couple of months later I found myself in Kansas City at what was back then a bi-annual FIAR Conference, where I met real homeschool moms and discovered other amazing things, like lapbooks. I also found out that unit studies + 3Rs = a full learning experience.
It is true that now and then, we doubted and subsequently strayed from this homeschool method, but we always found our way back. As my mom used to say, “Marcy, I do believe you could turn a visit to the post office into a unit study.” (and she was right, because I actually did just that one year!)
For those of you new to this method, let’s define unit study.
According to unit study study author, Amanda Bennett,a unit study is defined as:
. . . an in-depth examination of a topic (space, trees, cars, etc.) that approaches the topic from many academic disciplines—geography, science, history, art, etc. It is a complete immersion into the topic so that the student will see things as a “whole” instead of as disjointed bits and pieces learned throughout his education.
Since unit studies have been the primary staple of our homeschool for more than 10 years now, I’d like to share with you the reasons I believe they work so well for homeschooling. Because obviously, I strongly believe they do.
An Inch Wide and a Mile Deep
Many traditional curriculum choices, especially those “curriculum-in-a-box” options, do a great job of modeling the public school system. Remember that? Textbooks that gave you small snippets of information to memorize for the test. Things like dates and names, but little more to really get your creative juices flowing. Or workbooks. Multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true or false. Can I just say one thing? The only reward for completing a workbook is another workbook. It’s drudgery, and it’s boring. There are many reasons we don’t send our kids to school and this is one of them. This type of learning creates a scenario where kids end up with knowledge that is a mile wide, but only an inch deep. They learn facts that are easily regurgitated for a time, and then quickly forgotten.
Unit studies do the opposite. Taking a topic — any topic really — and studying it across the curriculum gives kids knowledge that is deep. It may only be an inch wide, but the mile deep part more than makes up for that. And when you add up all of the inches that accumulate throughout the year, what they end up with is knowledge a mile wide AND a mile deep. With unit studies, students have the opportunity to be creative, begin developing critical thinking skills, and learn how to research.
They learn how to learn.
This type of learning sticks with them, too. Since they see the topic as a whole, rather than a few disconnected pieces, it makes sense to them in a way that is memorable (as well as fun and interesting).
Passion for Learning
I often refer to our homeschool as “delight-directed.” This is because most of Ben’s learning has happened in areas in which he has great curiosity. Curiosity is the key to learning. It is what compels children to love learning. They get curious about something, and when you indulge that, they develop the mindset that they can learn about anything! Using textbooks and workbooks is boring.
And in the words of Dorothy Parker:
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
There may not be a cure for curiosity, but there is certainly a way to stamp it out — by ignoring it.
Kids are curious about everything. I believe that sometimes we squelch that with lists of what we think they need to know, rather than allowing them the freedom to dive into what piques their interest. Do you have a shelf full of books that begin with, “What a _____-grader Needs to Know?” Do me a favor and throw them away. What your every-grader needs to know is how to learn.
Unit studies are a great way to allow the interests and passions of your kids take over your homeschool. When kids get a choice in what they get to learn, they fall in love with learning. And isn’t that the goal for most of us? Kids who love learning? The fastest way to lose the love for learning is to hand over a boring set of textbooks and workbooks that neither inspire or challenge them.
Ease of Use
Unit studies are simple to use. There are many options out there for pre-written unit studies. Or you can create your own. Don’t worry — it’s really very simple to do. All you really need is a library card and a few supplies you probably already have on hand. I tell you how you can do it yourself in this article — How To Plan Your Own Unit Studies. Planning your own works great for those topics you have trouble finding in a pre-written unit study. If you want to buy them already done for you, here are a few companies we have used and highly recommend:
Unit Studies by Amanda Bennett (lots of options for grades K-12)
Once-a-Week Unit Studies (great for getting your feet wet)
Shining Dawn Books (nature-based unit studies, great for Charlotte Mason style homeschools)
Home School in the Woods (amazing history-themed unit studies with lots of hands-on activities)
Homeschool Share (FREE literature-based unit studies, primarily for younger grades, many include lapbooks)
Five in a Row (literature-based unit studies, primarily for elementary grades)
Large Family Benefits
I know . . . we’ve established many times on this blog that Ben is an only child. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the tremendous benefit to larger families using unit studies. We all know the cost of homeschooling can be high, if we are not careful. With unit studies, you can teach almost all of your children at the same time, adjusting the expectations and assignments according to ability. Kids from Pre-K through 8th grade can study the same topics, using one unit study. You would only need to separate them for the 3Rs (and even then, kids close in aged can often be kept at the same level). Not only does this save money, it saves time in planning and implementation. As an added benefit, your younger kids benefit from absorbing the extra information their older siblings are learning while the older siblings benefit from helping instruct the younger ones. In both scenarios, the material is reinforced even more.
Have you tried homeschooling with unit studies? Will you try them now? We’d love to hear stories of YOUR real life homeschool, too!
Meet me back here tomorrow when I’ll share about another favorite way to homeschool — field trips! (here’s a link to that article)
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like to read Homeschooling with Unit Studies in High School.