How I Develop Unit Studies

Last week, I discussed Unit Studies and whether unit studies could be used in Reggio and Montessori. This week, I wanted to break down how I develop unit studies and organize my ideas (and materials) well in advance.

How to develop Unit Studies: Reggio and Montessori

My basic steps for designing a unit study are:

  • Observe the children.
  • Determine a topic of interest that is shared.
  • Look through what you already have.
  • Brainstorm before Pinterest.
  • Google and pin.
  • Fit ideas into a “rough” curriculum plan.
  • Shop, if necessary.
  • Finalize curriculum plan based on available materials.
  • (Send it to co-op or playgroup parents.)
  • Prepare the materials.
  • Set up the environment
  • Develop (and host) a dynamic circle time

Observe the children.

What materials are they being drawn to (repeatedly)? Which scenarios are they acting out in their play? What are they asking a lot of questions about?

Determine a topic of interest that is shared.

The interest doesn’t need to be equal for all children, but it should be something that every child has shown a mild interest in. There is always a way to bridge interests between the most diverse children, even by picking a general topic that neither is very interested in and presenting it in a way that shows how their interests are connected within this unit.

For example, a child who loves dogs and a child who loves cars might both be interested in a unit about Emergency Service Workers, exploring the roles of the people and animals employed in the fields, exploring the variety of emergency vehicles and their intricacies, etc, even if neither child has shown particular interest in Emergency Service Workers. I think this process is equally hard with one child or many children, as with one child you can get distracted by all of their many interests by looking too closely, and with many children you may have to stretch your thinking to incorporate all children. You can always test the waters before unrolling a full unit study by introducing a book, provocation, or play corner touching on the subject and observing if the majority of children seem interested.

Look through what you already have.

I recently went through a major possessions purge which I’ll be honest, was partially to make more room for the educational supplies that I have acquired over the past three years. I’ve found it useful to make inventories for all of the objects so that I can quickly glance through an excel spreadsheet to get a sense of what I have, rather than pull out all of the tote boxes and sort through every item. Even if its a stretch, I write down each and every item that can possibly be incorporated in the unit study for my brainstorm.

Brainstorm before Pinterest.

I brainstorm based on what I have, what I can easily acquire, and what I can make. I try to look at my curriculum planner to ensure I’m brainstorming for every subject, but I don’t worry too much about that at this point — sometimes I’ll think of something very abstract and it will fit later into a subject or sometimes I come up with a lot of ideas for one subject that I can either pick the best or adapt some to fit other subjects.

Brainstorming before Pinning allows me to connect with what I find important in a unit study topic and not get swayed by great ideas that just don’t fit with our learning goals, and focus on the great ideas that fit within that (making for effective pinning!). For example, with St. Patrick’s Day, a lot of the ideas online were about green, leprechauns, etc, whereas I wanted to focus on rainbows, introducing seeds/planting, and Irish culture.

Google and Pin.

Now that you have an idea of your focus, you can search accordingly. I am always open to newer (better) ideas, but knowing with the St. Patrick’s unit that I wanted Irish culture and rainbows helped me refine searches that would have otherwise returned a lot of kitschy St. Patrick’s stuff that didn’t suit my goals.

Fit ideas into a “rough” curriculum plan.

I create a loose curriculum plan based on my brainstorm and pins, and then work on specific subjects that might need more work. This is still a rough plan because I am open to changing what I’m doing based on what I find when shopping — if I need more items to round out my unit study. Sometimes, it turns out that you already have everything you need and you can skip this and the next step and go straight to finalizing your curriculum plan. (I’ll be sharing my curriculum planner soon!)

Shop, if necessary.

For our Dinosaur unit I already had several materials, but there were a handful of items that we needed to go out and get, and I was open to any other materials we might find. We first stopped at our homeschool co-op and selected one of three dinosaur-themed bins to bring home; I hadn’t thought about dinosaur duplo but that was a great inclusion in our block area and something that all of the kids (including the one year olds) would be able to access, and the bin also included a dinosaur puppet which really enhanced our circle time and dinosaur books which helped us delay our library trip until the unit was well underway. After that, we just needed to pick up a second set of the same mini-dinosaur figurines that we already had so that we could do matching and stergonostic activities, we bought some large dinosaur figures that we unexpectedly found, and then also managed to find citric acid (a safe canning food additive) to make our fizzing dinosaur eggs.

Finalize curriculum plan.

Adjust based on what you found or didn’t find while shopping.

(Send it to co-op or playgroup parents.)

This step is in parentheses because it doesn’t apply to home learners. Now that we have other children joining us and I am also developing unit studies alongside two Montessori friends, I send out my curriculum to ensure that no one has issues. For example, a family might object to certain cultural elements of St. Patrick’s Day or ask for additional considerations to be included.

Prepare the materials.

I try to do a couple of units at once, determining if my ideas work in reality or if they need substitution or adjustment. I try to do this with enough time to accommodate getting additional materials, if necessary.

Materials for additional units are stored in unit-specific tote bins, so they can just be emptied when I am ready to set up the unit.

Setting up the environment.

I either do this when Ella is asleep or with grandparents, it allows me to put things away without protest and play around with the display to make the room dynamic and functional. I think the biggest part is putting things away and reconfiguring remaining items to complement the planned work. After the general work is put out, I sometimes add additional elements for visual stimulation that serve no functional purpose, for example, the feather boas in the bird unit (which we ended up using as a gross motor activity).

Dynamic circle time.

Within a couple of hours of the new environment being “unveiled” I initiate a circle time that involves songs, calendar time, stories, and a demonstration. This is an essential part of the rhythm of our day. It helps children warm up to the new unit study if they are a bit unsure about the changes in environment, and helps get all of the children to make personal connections to the unit study topic.

how to plan a unit study

This is what has worked for me, but what has worked for you? What steps would you add or take away?

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