By Dr. Mary Hood

Do the words “relaxed” and “unit studies” seem like an unlikely coupling? Many of the moms I’ve known who have based the majority of their instruction on unit studies have burned out after awhile, due to the heavy demands of this “hands-on approach”, but it really doesn’t have to turn out that way.

As most of you know, unit studies are an alternative to the subject-centered approach that is typical of traditional education. In a unit study, teachers choose a topic, often related to either science or social studies, and then weave other subjects into the study. An example would be a teacher who chose to study the Civil War, and then used that topic to cover language arts (writing about the war, selecting spelling words dealing with the war, etc.) science (how gunpowder works), social studies, (the geography of the war), critical thinking (was the war really about slavery or was it states’ rights?), and maybe even math (what percentage of the battles were won by the south?). When trying to weave in everything, especially using active learning and the project method, it can wind up being exhausting for the mom, especially if she is trying to plan and execute the entire project on her own.

When choosing a unit study approach, I believe it is critical that you realize that these units were created by some of John Dewey’s main disciples, and one of their primary goals was to suppress their student’s individuality and replace it with a group mindset. I’m guessing this is the exact opposite of the goal most of you have for your students! With these things in mind, here are some concrete suggestions for using unit studies in your home school.

1. Unit studies don’t have to be done in a group. An individual child can study a topic all by himself. If you have several children, give them some freedom to decide how much they want to be involved. If you find yourself saying, “Johnny, put down that book on spiders and get over here and study rocks and minerals with the rest of us!” ask yourself what the heck you are doing. (Stop that learning and get over here to do your homeschooling?)

2. Unit studies don’t have to be planned or executed by a parent. They can evolve naturally from the interests of the child. Of course, sometimes they might be planned by a parent to fill in a perceived gap in instruction. However, they might also be a natural outgrowth of watching a mini-series on television, or reading a particular book. Everything doesn’t always have to be planned in advance. It can develop organically.

3. Unit studies don’t have to involve active learning. It’s always nice, with young children, to get them involved in hands-on projects. However, a lot of learning can also be done vicariously, with books and other media. One good project or field trip can add a lot to the unit study, but the mom doesn’t necessarily have to sit up all night making the costumes for a big medieval feast at the end. Our unit studies usually just died a normal death when we gradually got sick of them or they mutated into something else.

4. Keep some minimal records of your unit studies. If you go on a field trip, bring back the tickets or a program. Keep a list of the books you read. Write a little bit about it in a journal. No matter what your specific state law, the more “relaxed” you are about your instructional methods, the MORE you need to keep a few minimal records. That way, if you are ever called on the carpet, you don’t have to run around the room asking your children what you did that year you can call social studies.

5. As always, relax and enjoy it along with the children. If you let yourself get all worked up, wondering if you are “covering everything”, chances are you won’t be accomplishing as much as if you just settle down with a good book on the couch.

6. Sometime when you’re in the mood for doing a little planning, make a list of possible unit studies. You will probably find that some of them develop without a lot of planning. For example, you might find a great spider web on the front porch one day and start by running to the library to get a book on spiders. Then you might wind up making webs all over the children’s rooms with yarn, making it impossible to open the door. Watch out, though. You might wind up with a twenty-nine year old who is still living at home, and has tarantulas living on the front porch and black widow spiders living in protected status all over the side yard. Oops, sorry… .I digress… just a little bit of venting.

7. When you find yourself in a bit of a lull, take out the list and pick out something to do. This is particularly helpful during the mid-year blahs, just after Christmas, when you’re having trouble getting going again.

8. While employing this relaxed method, don’t forget to set some long-range goals for your kids. When kids are younger than twelve, I believe that just having an atmosphere of learning in the home, with sufficient discipline and order built in, and lots and lots of reading, is probably all that is really needed. However, as they move into their middle years (around 12-14), it is important to review your goals and make some decisions concerning high school. This is a great age to use unit studies to close up a few gaps. When my daughter, Ginny, was about this age, she had no interest in science, and she was the president of her 4-H club, so I helped her design a “science” year, when they had a science fair and did volunteer work down at the local aquarium. It didn’t turn her into a scientist, but it did help her get a little more well-rounded in her interests.

9. Remember that unit studies can also be used during the high school years. Perhaps you have a junior who is still intensely interested in the Civil War. You can let him go and read everything there is to read about the Civil War, and perhaps use that as the basis for learning how to write a term paper, and STILL call it “U. S. History”, even if you didn’t study any other aspect of our past. ” Remember you don’t HAVE to use the syllabus from the public school when you are writing down subjects on a college transcript.” Chances are the kid learned a lot of history when he was younger anyway, and besides, he’ll probably still have to take the subject again in college, so you won’t ruin him for all time by denying him the privilege of learning who the fifteenth president of the United States was. M.H.
Note: For more information on how to develop a relaxed atmosphere in your home school, or to contact Mary Hood directly, go to her website,, or email her at She will be doing a workshop in the Los Angeles area on November 2-3, sponsored by Excellence in Education in Monrovia, including a section on working with teens (Friday night), and will also be speaking at The LINK conference April 25-27, 2008.