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The Joy and Ease of Learning Through Child-led Unit Studies
Kandi Chong

Unit studies are collections of learning activities tied to a theme. They are popular with many homeschooling families because they provide a hands-on approach to learning that incorporates subjects such as math, science, language arts, and the social sciences.

The great advantages of unit studies are that they can be tied into a child's interest and that the entire family can learn about a subject together.

Putting together a unit study on a subject can seem intimidating at first. After all, if your child's passion in life is the insect world, and you can't tell a beetle from a butterfly, how in the world are you going to be able to come up with a course of study that involves all the disciplines? The question of how to put together a unit study comes up frequently at homeschool park days, on chat lists. and at conferences. It seems that a lot of parents who homeschool love the idea of the approach but don't feel knowledgeable or creative enough to put one together for their children. They also worry that they would spend all their time tracking down resources, games, and books only to discover that their children don't want to participate.

However, putting together a unit study can be very simple if you follow two basic rules. First, follow your child's lead; second, be a mentor, not a teacher.

I have been doing unit studies with my daughter for three years now. People are always amazed at how creative, fun, and educational the studies are. Together, my daughter and I have explored the age of dinosaurs, studied forensic science, designed fashions, and hopped aboard the Hogwart's Express to attend wizards' school. People tell me they think I must be extremely resourceful to come up with the projects, games, and other activities we do as part of our unit studies, but I can't take the credit. Most of the ideas come from my daughter - I just facilitate her dreams.

In her book, Creative Home Schooling: A Resource Guide for Smart Families (previously titled Creative Homeschooling for Gifted Children, author Lisa Rivero points out that "Many children naturally do unit studies in their free time - we just call them obsessive interests!"

The first step in putting together a unit study is to discover what your child's current obsessive interest is. That shouldn't be too hard. Watch him or her play, and see what sparks interest at museums, movies or books. If your child checks out 13 books from the library on dinosaurs, it's a pretty good bet that it's an obsessive interest.

Most parents know what their kids are currently into - be it Legos or astrophysics - and that knowledge precipitates their desire to create a unit study. But before you start creating a six-week multidisciplinary study complete with vocabulary words and poems to memorize, stop and ask yourself whether this study is for you or for your child. A unit study should follow the interest of the child; while you may think it's fascinating to study the Illiad, your child may only be interested in early Greek philosophers. My point is that it's all too easy to get carried away and take over the learning process from your child.

Our unit studies don't last one week or even six - they usually last the entire year. "How is that possible," you ask? How could you possibly come up with enough information to keep a child occupied for an entire year? I don't try. And we don't work on our unit study every day. I simply follow my daughter's lead, and suggest and provide information to help her discover the answers to her questions herself.

When my daughter becomes interested in a subject to the point where I think a unit study might be in order, I don't "design" one in the sense that I create a curriculum and then tell my daughter that we are going to do a unit study.

The first thing I do is ask if she wants to learn more about a subject. If she does, we look for resources together. We might go to the library, search on the Internet, or see if NetFlix has a documentary we can rent to watch together. My daughter has yeah or nay power over all of it. If she doesn't want to read a book that I think would be perfect, she doesn't - but I do, so that I can answer her questions if they come up.

Once I have her on her way with research materials, I stay on the lookout for anything that might be related to her interest. For example, her current passion is Colonial America and the American Revolution. While watching the Food Network channel, I discovered they were going to have a program on "Christmas in Colonial America" that looked at the food the colonists in Colonial Williamsburg ate. I told my daughter about it, and she wanted to watch it. I allowed her to stay up past her bedtime for it. That sparked an interest in Colonial recipes, so we found an American Girl cookbook with recipes and other factual information about that time period. We read the book and tried a few recipes. None of this was planned when I started - it just gradually evolved from my trying to find materials on a subject that interested her.

Often, I will search the Internet looking for things to aid my daughter in learning about an area that interests her. When she was five, and a crazed Nancy Drew fan, the Internet led me to a company that makes a kit that helps children learn science principles by pretending to be detectives. After checking with my daughter, I purchased it and we had a lot of fun using the kit and pretending to be detectives. At the same time, I found a book on detectives at the used bookstore and purchased that for her.

Putting together a unit study in this manner is not only fun but also less time consuming than a more traditional approach, because I'm not trying to create math problems, pick vocabulary words, or get my daughter to read a book she really isn't interested in.

But is this really a unit study? Isn't it just child-led learning? Well, yes and no. By taking my cue from my daughter's interests and providing the materials for her to use or not use, I am using the child-led approach - but I also suggest activities to my daughter that encourage her to explore avenues she might not have pursued. When she became interested in ancient Egypt, her primary interest was mummification, which we studied in depth; but I bought an activity book that had a lot hands on projects, and suggested several of them to her. Before long we were building pyramids out of sugar cubes, and writing secret messages to each other in hieroglyphics. It was play with a purpose - to get her interested in other aspects of the Egyptian world - and it succeeded. Sometimes I call what I do covert teaching, but in reality we are just pursing her interests together.

Copyright 2005 Kandi Chong

Kandi Chong is a freelance writer who has been homeschooling her daughter since birth.

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