How To Make a Unit Study… From a TV Show

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How do you typically respond to your child’s interest in a TV show or character? I’ll admit, the first character that Ella loved was Mickey Mouse and we went a very commercial route with that interest. I bought stuffed characters, DVDs, cookie cutters, and cupcake moulds. We even bought a tea ball anchored by a Mickey Mouse head! However, children quickly cycle through these interests and if we were to go this route for every passing interest, our house would be filled with character memorabilia and we’d be broke!

Most of us would find it completely acceptable to take a child’s love for firefighters and turn that into a unit study, or use that interest to give opportunities to build on future learning. Personally, I have no qualms about doing the same for an interest in a TV character or movie. Tomorrow, I’ll share Ella’s favourite TV shows and movies (and would love to hear about yours), but today I’ll share my plan for devising a unit study around a television show!


My daughter has been obsessed with the minions from Despicable Me for a few months now. She originally watched it at grandpa’s house, then our local cinema played it for their Saturday morning “family” show on Ella’s special day, and she’s probably asked to watch it every couple of weeks since! I’ll try to knock out a few more unit studies based on characters over the summer, but for now, here’s our Montessori-inspired Despicable Me unit!

Circle Time
A while back I made this felt Minion finger puppet, which was super easy — just cut a piece of felt about the size of a twinkie and use felt glue (or sew, if you’re extra ambitious) it to a matching piece. Attach some embroidery floss for “hair” and a googly eye, and then added the additional details with whatever you have on hand.

This little finger puppet is a great addition to circle time and can help with any rhymes, or with teaching minion-specific songs. There’s a super-annoying youtube video of the Minions singing The Beach Boy’s “Barbara Ann” (“Banana”) that Ella just LOVES. You can do your own spin-offs with it, teach some original Beach Boys, turn it into an ode to various fruits, whatever you’d like!

Personally, I have never found a book spin-off from a TV show or movie to be worth the paper its printed on, but occasionally you might find a book that comes close — or, the movie was inspired by a book in the first place. Something that comes close to the minion theme is Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter.

Small Activities
The nice thing about picking a popular TV show or movie to base your unit study off of is the access to cheap, marketed products such as stickers! I bought a package of Minion stickers and created this wooden matching game by attaching six pairs of matching stickers to wooden circles purchased from Etsy shop DC Woodcrafts, however any smooth wooden chip could substitute.  If you wanted to make this a permanent matching game, you can Modge Podge or otherwise seal the stickers onto the chips, or if you want to be able to repurpose the chips, the stickers can be easily removed (and any sticky bits wiped off with a bit of nail polish remover).

Children don’t need an ornate or large addition for a unit study to go over well. I often find its the small trays and activities that receive the most sustained enthusiasm. Something like my matching game is going to be revisited more than a stuffed character.

Arts and Crafts
It can be really easy to go overboard on the character crafts, but I try to offer open-ended materials inspired by the show and allow children to design their own project. Simply putting yellow and blue paint out on the easel, and maybe some leftover character stickers to practice fine motor skills, allows for a myriad of opportunities. Children can choose to try to paint their own minions (using the stickers or poster as a guide), or they can experiment with different forms, colour mixing, and even paint applicators (brushes, pompoms, droppers, etc).

I intended to have the kids make a paper mache moon, as the characters in the movie try to shrink and steal the moon. This was a great opportunity to practice sequential work and was a great sensory experience, but when it came time to paint, they decided to turn the “moon” into the Earth.

An older child might enjoy a printable or youtube tutorial on how to draw the characters from the show.

Themed Food (Preparation)
Pinterest can serve up loads of inspiration for themed character snacks. I prefer to go for the options that children can help out with, nothing too detailed or precise. You can simply go for fruit salads or fruit kebabs that use the colours of the show or main character (blueberries and pineapple for the minions), or you can find something a bit more specific. We used Brown Eyed Baker’s homemade Twinkie recipe and made our own Minion Twinkies by painting on some eyes with leftover Marshmallow Fluff (from our Marshmallow Playdough). Please excuse the late-night cell phone shot — we only made a couple and they were not going to last more than five minutes!

Sensory Bins or Provocations
What are your child’s favourite aspects of the show? Ella loves the moon, minions, cookies, and phrase “It’s so fluffy!” The opening of the movie also features shrinking of famous landmarks which is PERFECT for Montessori if you can get your hands on the Safari Toobs Around the World and/or World Landmarks.You could do a sensory bin that incorporates as many things from the show as you want, or you can focus on a few aspects.

I decided to do a “cookie robot” provocation, offering chocolate-scented playdough, various lengths of pipe cleaner, some nuts and bolts, and a “prototype.”

Culture (Tying the Show into a Subject)
Expanding on the landmark theme of the sensory bin, learning more about the Landmarks featured is a great way to deepen a child’s understanding of what they saw on television. You can use Three-Part Cards (like these ones from Suzie’s Home Education Ideas) to build on the mini-landmarks, locate the landmarks on a map, match flags to the landmarks — there are so many possibilities!

The cookie theme on the show would also be a fun way to expand cultural understanding, and tie in some practical life activities. (French Madeline cookies, Egyptian Butter cookies, etc.)

I personally wouldn’t feel the need to tie the show into every subject that your child is learning — I’ve done it in the past and just don’t find it necessary; plus, the children get bored before they get decent use out of all of the materials if you have too much on offer. Incorporating the show into a couple of subjects, and then leaving some open-ended materials related to show will provide enough themed learning without having to lose too much time and money to themed resources. For us, incorporating the movie into Circle Time, Arts and Crafts, and one other subject (in this instance, Culture) is more than enough. You can try to be strategic and make the selected subject one that your child doesn’t often approach — maybe incorporating “cookie math” or “robot building” into your unit.

Checking out the TV show or movie’s website can be a great resource (for example, during our Dinosaur Unit I downloaded some great printables from the Dinosaur Train website), and a quick Pinterest search for “[TV show] activities” can turn up some great resources.

We’ll be doing a few more of these in the near future, but I’m curious — which TV shows or movies would you like to see units themes for? Have you used a TV show before to help engage your child or classroom?

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  1. When my son does watch TV, it is usually a PBS show (I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the shows and that they don’t contain crude humor or annoying characters!) Dinosaur Train and Thomas the train are favorites 🙂 I use his Thomas toys (gifted to use, otherwise I probably would not have bought character toys) for sorting, counting, and color practice. Of course we also just play with them 🙂

    1. We are big dinosaur train fans over here. It is SO hard to find kid’s shows that have appropriate humour, no sarcasm, crudeness, etc. Even the ones I expect to be innocent sometimes have cringe-worthy moments. I love that you’re using the trains for play-based learning — your train table looks so inviting!

    1. I totally agree! When I mentioned the idea to a couple of my Montessori teach friends, one LITERALLY shuddered at the thought, lol. But I think the whole point is finding something that engages the child and using it to explore different concept. I think its part of the taboo of admitting that our children are actually watching TV occasionally 🙂

  2. This is such a great idea! Why not embrace what your child is in to and place education and fun around it? Pinned so I can remember this when my little one is a little older.

  3. This is awesome! Thanks! I have used Sid the Science kid and Tree Schoolers to in spire some themes, but I haven’t done any real planned unit studies. This is a really great idea!

  4. Heya

    We did a unit study last year in order to teach reading. It lasted for four weeks. During my lessons I asked them to either recite or read out loud a short extract from a non fiction text. We studied a number of text types in question. I then listed the features of each text type in addition on a white board. I even had a small collection of brochures and so on. It worked. Best wishes.

    They even studied a lot of different kinds of texts. It was so much fun. Seriously. We compared a series of free leaflets and the like in class. They wrote a mini thank you letter as part of the entire unit study. And they discussed things with me. Rather than get stressed I made the most if things. I used oral quizzes to evaluate their knowledge as well. What fun. I loved it. All of it.

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