Unit Studies are a great way to approach home education, as they can work for every age and interest. All the children in the family can work together, but at their own level. Older kids might do more writing, research and read extra books, and even toddlers can be dressed up as a mummy or enjoy watching their siblings launching water balloons from a homemade ballista.

Flexibility is a key feature of the unit study approach. Studies can be wide or in depth running for a term or semester, but they can also be short, over just a week or two. You can choose any subject from ancient history to geometry, plants to Lego.

It’s possible to buy unit studies, but it’s simple to put a unit together yourself following a simple formula. A series of units through the year, perhaps alternating science and humanities can easily cover most key learning areas. It’s possible to integrate maths, languages and health/PE into your studies, but some people prefer to add extra resources/activities in these areas.

To start a unit, you need a spine. This is usually a book, but could be a documentary series. You are looking for something which covers the majority of topics you want to include. It’s a good idea to check your own shelves and see what your local library has available as online purchases can sometimes disappoint, particularly project based books, which may have ideas less exciting than those you can find online for free.

Common choices for a spine include:

  • Home ed specific books like Story of the World
  • Non fiction books like the Eyewitness Series
  • An activity book

Once you have found a book you like it’s time to start planning, but don’t get too caught up at this stage. You will never be able to cover everything, or incorporate every great activity – and that’s okay. If you find a fantastic activity after you have finished the unit, you can still do it.

Split the spine into sections (chapters/episodes/double page spreads) and then think about what you will add to each section. Variety is important but picture books, non fiction/chapter books, documentaries and activities are the most common ingredients in a good unit study.

Picture books are short, packed with information, and attractive to look at. Cultures, scientific concepts, biographies–  picture books cover every single topic, and by choosing a few books for each section you reinforce the information in your spine, as well as introducing new concepts.

Chapter books work well as a read aloud, perhaps one or two books that you read together over the course of the unit, but they are also an effective way for older children to go into more depths. Historical fiction, biographies, and detailed non-fiction work well for older children who are ready for a challenge. Spend time discussing what they have read, and encourage them to share highlights with younger siblings.

Documentaries bring things to life, and are often at a more advanced level suitable for older kids, but that doesn’t mean that the little ones won’t be learning. Podcasts and audiobooks work well, and can be listened to in the car. Short video clips or series (like Magic School Bus) also include a great deal of information.

Games and hands-on activities are the key to a successful unit study, as children learn best through doing, and the projects and artworks they complete can be shared, treasured and remembered for many years. Add in an excursion or two (even if they are only tangentially related), and you will be ready to go. Here’s a short list of activities that work well with multiple unit studies:

  • Use Lego to create a model
  • Craft a model or diorama
  • Make a costume
  • Cook a feast
  • Incorporate themed copywork
  • An excursion to the museum, a place of interest, to visit someone knowledgeable
  • Draw a diagram or artwork
  • Complete mapwork, or find locations in an atlas or on a globe
  • Create an A-Z of the topic and illustrate it digitally or by hand.
  • Create a stop-animation to explain something you have learned
  • Use food to create a model
  • Create a timeline
  • Find an outdoor activity or game to reinforce learning
  • Play vocabulary bingo, or learn related words in a second language
  • Create an artwork or sculpture related to the topic
  • Give a presentation about a key figure
  • Write a newspaper article in the style of a tabloid piece, or create a magazine
  • Learn a poem or song about the topic
  • Find a reader’s theatre script
  • Graph an aspect of the topic, look at statistics
  • Write an essay, or complete a notebooking page
  • Play a game to reinforce learning, or create a game to showcase what has been learnt
  • Create a slideshow to share with family
  • Keep a notebook/scrapbook with all of your work
  • Create a photobook that you can keep forever with photos of artwork as well as written pieces

Pinterest can be a good source of ideas, but the amount available can be daunting, so HEN is creating curated Pinterest boards for many subject areas, which you could use as a basis for your study. As you add projects to your list, write down the supplies you will need, then check your cupboards before purchasing. If you need something you can’t find, skip that activity rather than stalling and don’t feel you have to have every single thing printed, organised and planned before you start.

Remember not to get so caught up in the planning that you never get around to the activities, and even the best planned unit may have a couple of flops – the experiment that just won’t work, or the artwork the kids don’t want to finish. But these may become family jokes, and looked back on as fondly as the activities that were hits.