Unit Studies: Everything’s Connected

In the first post of bcbk 4.0, I wrote about the Money and Time involved in our choice to homeschool. To review, it takes a lot of both.

Now that those logistics have been touched on, I want to move on to another: how we choose what we learn. After a year or so of researching and experimenting with different types of learning styles – Montessori, Curriculum-Based, Charlotte Mason, Classical, etc. – I came to realize that E and I both work and learn best with a Unit Studies approach.

But first –

What is a Unit Study? For our purposes, a Unit Study is when we organize our learning around a central theme or topic. The stories we read, the science we learn, the art we make, etc., all connect to the theme we chose. For instance, a Unit Study on Birds might include bird story books and imaginative play; learning about the different feathers and eggs of birds and why they are the way they are; painting pictures of our favorite birds, along with close-ups of their feathers and eggs; practicing writing and phonics by labeling our art; taking our binoculars on the trail to look for some local birds; building a birdhouse with Husband – you get the picture. Generally, our Unit Studies cover about a month of learning, and we begin by reading a self-curated list of library books and seeing where our interest takes us.

A spin that I put on our approach: we have Family Unit Studies. What this means is that in addition to planning out a Unit for E, I also add in a few things for myself related to the topic – a few grown-up books, maybe some videos and Google Searches, recipes, house projects, and whatever else floats my boat.

So, how do we decide on what to learn?

(1) We connect it to an upcoming event
Example: Earlier this year, we took a family vacation to Joshua Tree National Park (or, we were supposed to before the Government Shutdown happened and we had to slightly alter course). In preparation for the trip, I created a Desert Unit Study. E and I learned about desert plants and animals, weather, ecosystems, and culture. He made his own little book that we brought with us and used as a kind of scavenger hunt checklist. In addition, I learned a bit about Palm Springs history and architecture. It was delightful.

(2) We build it around his curiosities
Example: While we were exploring the deserts of SoCal, E noticed the different kinds of rocks around us. He was fascinated, and so when we landed back in the PNW I created a Unit Study on Rocks and Gems. We learned about the rock cycle, and about famed and storied gemstone jewelry. We made paintings of different rocks and gems. He created his own little rock lab in our backyard. Again, utterly delightful.

(3) We build it around my curiosities
Example: We moved into a new house last year and with it came a beautiful backyard filled with things that I have no idea how to take care of. So, I created a Gardening Unit! E and I learned about flowers and trees, pollinators, compost, and photosynthesis. That Unit cultivated E’s fascination with flowers and gave me a baseline level of competence in gardening, both of which I plan on capitalizing on come next Spring – when we do a second round of the Unit, including the creation of a landscaping plan.

(4) We connect it to our other classes
Example: E has always been weary of water. Bathtime as a baby could be rough, and even now he is not a fan of water on his face. You can imagine how swimming lessons are going. In an effort to help ease some of his trepidation, I created an Ocean Unit Study. We learned about Earth’s five oceans and the animals that live in them. Perhaps most importantly, we read stories about mermaids and ocean explorers – so that during his swim class, he could borrow a bit of their bravery and pretend to be Ariel or Jacques Cousteau. (Bonus: His Montessori class over the summer also had an ocean theme. Serendipity!)

Unit Studies allow us a good balance of structure and flexibility. They also allow us to follow our interests down the rabbit hole and really deep dive where we want to. They show us, over and over again, how interconnected things are. But perhaps my favorite thing about them is realizing, and emphasizing, that learning is all around us all the time.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
– John Muir