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Uncle CHiN

Dear Uncle CHiN,

I have heard several homeschoolers talk about unit studies. What are unit studies? Should I be doing unit studies? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks?

Signed, Wants to Know

Dear Wants to Know ,

Usually when people talk about unit studies, they mean concentrating on a particular topic such as dinosaurs, California missions, European geography, ancient Greece, and so on. Like everything else in homeschooling, different families use the unit approach in different ways—and many families have terrific homeschooling experiences without ever using the unit approach at all.

The general characteristics of "unit studies" might include that the unit is an exploration of a topic of interest; that it encompasses several different kinds of activities, and therefore several different traditional school "subjects" such as reading, math, science and art; and that it should be attuned in both depth and length to the needs and interests of the learners.

One family I know let the kids choose unit topics. Once the kids chose to learn about space, and the whole family took great joy in discovering resources of all kinds on that topic. Suddenly, the world seemed very full of space stuff -- books and videos and museums and a nearby planetarium show they had never checked out. The "unit" grew and evolved with everyone's interest, and the family ended up doing space stuff almost exclusively for a while (along with the daily chores of life, of course). They read and wrote about space; computations crept in as they struggled with a borrowed telescope; they learned about astronomers and astronauts, both past and present, and put on a play about them; they even sang songs about planets and space travel! Star-watching was an almost nightly affair. Art flourished all over the house—from pictures of Greek gods after which constellations were named to scratchboard depictions of aliens, from carefully designed spacecraft to collages of galaxies and nebulae. Somewhere in there the kids started an elaborate pretend game about fictional characters that were traveling from planet to planet. About 75% of the children's free play involved this game. Dolls were used in new ways, and old tennis ball cans were wrapped in foil and sprouted nose cones. Christmas came and went, and the kids were thrilled to have a space-themed Lego set to bring into the game.

The space unit for this family went on for about three months. But it was not a rigid unit planned beforehand, imposed on the family from outside, or imposed on the kids by the parents. There was no particular goal, other than enjoyment -- although the family ended up creating a goal—they decided to end their unit with a bang, and invited friends and family to a party called "Space Day."

Just so you realize that not all units are as immersive or as long as this one, this same family also had a unit on insects that lasted only two weeks; and when they were older, the kids decided to study the United States via a fictional trip around the country. The latter unit ended up taking an entire year, but was not usually very immersive. One day a week would often be transformed into part of the imaginary trip, as everyone got out tons of resources on a particular state, marked their maps, and went with it. Other days came and went with the usual play, reading, and artwork, chores and volunteer work. Several times during the year the family enjoyed pockets of immersion such as a 2-day exploration of all things Hawaiian, a 1-week trip to Utah and Arizona, and a longer trip back east. Nowadays, this family doesn't do unit studies at all—it just doesn't fit their present needs.

There are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers, unit study is only one way of exploring a topic, but a lot of families have fun with it.

Yours, Uncle CHiN


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