What is a Unit Study?

Creatures of habit…that’s what we are. Whether there is a better, more efficient, or easier way to do something, we often resort to auto-pilot. If our child asks why we do something a certain way, we may find ourselves responding with, “I don’t know, that’s the way I’ve always done it.”

We see habitual behavior in every aspect of our lives, whether spiritual, physical, or emotional. Old habits are hard to break and new ones often harder to establish. The same is true when it comes to our homeschool habits. Whether you are a fledgling homeschooler or a veteran like me, each of us tends to steer our proverbial homeschool bus straight for that which is most familiar…textbooks. Because, being creatures of habit, we tend to teach how we were taught.

But, let’s think about their original objective for a moment. Textbooks were designed to be convenient. They were meant to help teachers instruct a large group of students, roughly the same age, the same subject, at the same time, in the most judicious way possible. Each public or private school teacher has, in fact, only one textbook from which he or she has to teach. Yet, the first thing we do is load ourselves down with a busload of textbooks for every subject, grade, and child in our family. Is it any wonder we are soon ready to pull our hair out?

Now don’t misunderstand, a textbook can certainly be an effective, useful, and even convenient tool to use when educating our children. But textbooks for every subject, grade, and child in our family? That’s where convenience ends and major, homeschool burn-out begins.

The solution? Unit studies!

Unit Studies simplify your life by enabling your whole family to study the same topic, at the same time, regardless of age. They accommodate various learning styles and abilities by incorporating an assortment of creative, hands-on, multi-sensory assignments. Due to their fun, experiential approach to learning, they also improve long-term memory of the material studied. What’s more, their flexibility gives you the freedom to do as much or as little as you like, as well as the opportunity to tailor your family’s educational needs and interests.

Unit studies eliminate textbook clutter by building multiple academic subjects around one central theme. That means while you are studying birds, as in the illustration here, you can cohesively and sensibly connect Bible, reading, classic literature, science, history, language, geography, art, etc. to that theme.


For instance, when our family did a four-week study on the science of ornithology we looked up, discussed, wrote, and sometimes memorized a variety of different Scriptures relating to birds. (Bible)

By utilizing our local library system, we enjoyed a wide assortment of beautiful “living” books. Each book pertained to the topic of birds and, of course, we included classics, Caldecotts, and Newbery award winners for enjoyable, family read-alouds whenever applicable. All books were chosen according to each child’s ability. Our youngest, for example, was read simple, fact-based books and great classics like Make Way for Ducklings, Chicken Little, and Henny Penny, while our oldest read more advanced, informative books that applied to each week’s focus. (Reading/Classic Literature/Science)

A unit study is divided into individual, bite-sized pieces of the whole. So, in the first week of our bird study, we began reading books about birds and constructing a backyard habitat while building feeders and a bird bath. We also made homemade, hummingbird nectar and learned which types of seeds attract different kinds of birds. In the second week, we read biographies about John James Audubon, familiarized ourselves with how to use a field guide, began learning how to identify birds, and created journals in which to record them. In the third week, we read about Daniel Bernoulli, conducted experiments while studying the science of flight, and discovered the miracle of bird migration. In the fourth and final week, we read about birds of prey, our national bird, and even investigated threatened, endangered, and extinct species. As you can see from these few examples, various subjects were woven into this one science topic. (Reading/Arts & Crafts/History/Science/Language)

Examples of language assignments over the course of our study included among others: essays, poetry, science journal entries, and a thank-you note to the Audubon member who guided us on our bird hike. Spelling and grammar were also addressed when necessary. The beauty of learning together is you can adjust writing (and other) assignments to each child’s interest and ability. For instance, one child may do an oral presentation using visual aids; another may write a poem about their favorite bird, while still another may write a composition about an endangered species or create a lapbook on backyard birding. Younger children may dictate and color pictures of the birds they too are learning to identify. (Language)

Ornithology is obviously science, but you can easily weave history into a science-based unit study (and vice-versa) by learning, as we did, about the life of a famous ornithologist who lived long ago and placing him on a history timeline in the appropriate period in which he lived. (Science/History)

Mapping migration paths and discovering different habitats provided us with opportunities to develop our mapping skills and learn more science, as well as geography. (Mapping Skills/Science/Geography)

Sketching birds in our journals and photographing others offered us areas to grow in our artistic abilities. Examining Audubon’s paintings and his meticulous attention to detail challenged us and furthered our appreciation of the arts. (Art/Art Appreciation)

Of course, you’ll still need a math book for each child, resources for teaching early language skills, and your favorite go-to grammar resource. But the majority of your subjects can easily be integrated into your unit study topics, from early childhood through high school, without the added expense or chaos of multiple textbooks.

So, are you ready to break free from old habits? Are you ready to start having more fun? If so, imagine for a moment you are a child again. Before you are two tables; each table represents a class. Resting on one table is a science textbook, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, and test forms. You flip through the book noting a brief chapter on birds when, suddenly, the other table catches your eye.

Wow! That table is overflowing with homemade bird feeders, bird seed, and recipes for bird food concoctions. There’s a field guide, binoculars, colorful library books, and a biography about John James Audubon! His book, Birds of America, reveals hundreds of beautiful paintings! Ooh…there’s also a book that will teach you how to draw birds and a blank journal in which to record the many species you’ll discover while on a field trip. Alongside those are a documentary, a movie, and a CD that will help you identify birds by their songs. There’s also a Bible in which you’ll discover God’s careful attention to detail when creating birds. Yikes…there are even owl pellets that you’ll apparently dissect using rubber gloves and tweezers to determine its last victim!

If you were a child again, which class would you choose?