What are themes?
Themes are units of study used for any age group preschool through second grade. A single unit can naturally integrate several subjects in context that is easy for young children to understand.
Subjects that would normally be isolated as stand alone like language arts, math, science, art, music are integrated to help children begin to make independent meaningful connections around the central theme.
FOR EXAMPLE; a Kindergarten Farm Unit children could use their senses to explore the different types of animals that live on a farm.
What are the Benefits of Thematic Units?
Thematic units help with:
Simplicity- It provides an engaging platform to integrate concepts (which is naturally how they occur in real life). Math and science are nearly in everything we see and do (whether or not we realize it) and most kids like math (whether they know it or not) and all kids love science.
Flexibility- As your child grows you can adapt lessons and re-purpose materials.
lets say they’re in kindergarten next year you can re-purpose parts of your preschool ocean unit to include Math (counting, sorting and comparing groups of ocean animals), Science (sort and classify animals, learn about your child’s favorite marine animal, its requirements for living and adaptations.)
Multiple opportunities to be successful. Kids are exposed to many learning styles (audio, visual, tactile, etc.) in a thematic units and given exposure to different ways to express understand and express what and how they’re learning.
Expand Prior Knowledge. This is basically the overarching goal of every lesson whether you are homeschooling or your child attends public school. The big idea is what do you know about ______ & how do we grow that knowledge?
Young children need A LOT of repetition but too much of the same stuff isn’t engaging so I rotate my son’s favorite learning activities using activity calendars!
Engage kids in a farm unit with:
- Farm books
- Farm Sensory bins and play invitations
- Farm Themed puzzles and games
- and my personal favorite real life experience (a trip to a nearby pumpkin patch or farm)
Thematic units are popular because they lend themselves to naturally include a multitude of learning styles, modalities and cross cutting concepts. Also, it works well in a variety of settings. Use this in the classroom or while homeschooling. Thematic units are less about structured times for language arts or math (specifically) and more of a free-form routine.
Planning Thematic Units
Should I buy or create my own Thematic Units?
The answer is it depends.
- What do you need?
- Are you doing ALL learning at home or supplementing what your child learns in school?
- How much time do you want to spend planning and preparing?
You can buy a program and then make changes according to your needs or you can script out everything from scratch.
There really is no easy answer here. It’s a pro’s and con’s game and depends on your specific needs.
- all academic content areas are planned out (preschool or common core standards included in the reading programs which also often include writing and spelling for older grades)
- all you need to do is read and prepare, as needed
- usually comes with other supplementary materials (printables, work book, spelling lists, writing prompts,etc.)
- not all programs are user friendly, some take a great deal of time to “figure out”
- common core based programs have unrealistic academic goals or “teach too high” look for programs with “ELD” components. If it’s written properly it will help you differentiate (teach to “high, proficient and low” level learners).
- Most programs require supplementation for one or more elements (great for comprehension but need a separate spelling program for example)
- children may not be engaged in the core curriculum (ex: stories in a reading program or the presentation of math concepts)
- child-led (specific to your child’s needs)
- flexibility (most concepts can be integrated. Math, Science and Language intersect and many times can be taught together)
- custom materials
- often more engaging for kids
- have to do all of the work yourself (research, plan, buy materials, prepare lessons, etc)
- can take up a lot of time (as you’re learning how to do this)
If you have the time to dedicate to planning and preparing your own units then I say go for it! This is great for both the parent and the child as you’ll both be learning as you go. Planning for more than one child is obviously more work so cut yourself a break and plan multi-age lessons or activities. This cuts costs, saves time and is FUN!
Sometimes it is not possible to plan your own learning at home but you can always purchase thematic units and learning materials that are ready to go. This will support your needs as the educator and support your children (or students in your classroom).
How do I create my own thematic units?
I got started creating preschool units as an after work activity for us to spend time together. My son is an active boy who is very eager to learn. Not all of his needs were being addressed at his (former) preschool and quite franky I missed him while I was at work all day and wanted something fun for us to do together.
We first started with gardening activities. We LOVE the outdoors and for us it required no prep. so for me it was an easy solution.
We had such a good time and learned so much each day that I started thinking about what we could learn about next. Winter came and our activities needed to move indoors. I planned for rainy days and art projects and the next thing I knew it was summer. We went to the beach and learned that it’s not just a fun place for us to play it’s home to many plants and animals. We went to the tide pools at low tide.
There are 3 things I use when planning my units:
- Personal interests (what type of learning do they love best? Play based, STEM, Physical Activity, Art, Writing? What topics interest them?)
- Developmentally appropriate (where YOUR child is at on the learning curve- NOT where they “should” be. Always start from where THEY’RE at!)
- Real- life expereinces or realia (something in their daily life that they can relateand apply the concept to or a field trip that can bring the concept to life)
Keep it simple when you’re first starting out.
Let’s say your child is really into princesses, you can use this to grow your child’s brain.
There are many culturally different versions of Cinderella and I always love a good author study. For preschoolers you could chose maybe 3 different versions since there are far too many to choose from! There’s a German version, Ashcenpultel, Chinese, Yeh-Shen, Korean, a Philippine cinderella Abadeha, The Irish Cinderlad, Adelita by Tommy de Paloa, The Persian Cinderlla and SO MANY more!) and read and talk about them! You can play dress up or play in the backyard and get lost in the woods.
If you’re still not sure how to start learning at home try my activity challenge!
The theme for the challenge is play-based learning (PBL). An email course walks you through weekly lessons about different types of play based learning and why they are important for kids (ages 2-8).
PBL models included are:
- STEM/ STEAM
- Arts and Crafts
- Sensory Play
- Nature Based Play
- Kids Friendly Recipes
What are my child’s interests/ strengths?
It’s important to start where kids are at developmentally and in my professional opinion a love for learning comes first and academics falls into place when children are ready. I say this with confidence because I have spent the last 12 years teaching a variety of grades (preK- 3rd) and economic backgrounds. Most kids enjoy learning with minimal effort in early childhood (ages 2-6) so I like to keep my thematic unit preparation pretty simple.
Do they love messy play, sensory activities, animals? Plan an integrated (add math and language arts too) science unit. Art… you get the idea!)
What resources do I ALREADY have (that will support a thematic unit)?
Do you live near the beach, a lake, a farm, national monument, state park, etc. Look into local resources that would interest your child as you are planning your Thematic Units. This was my number one priority for my son. What real life experiences can I provide to help him?
Where is my child developmentally?
There are several important theories of childhood development. Choose the one that resonates with you and check in with it from time to time.
You may find it makes your life a hell of a lot easier knowing that what your child is going through is part of a normal course of development. Often I find it inspires new ways for me to support my child’s positive behaviors (as a preventative or proactive measure). My favorite early childhood educator is by far Maria Montessori.
What are the Advantages to teaching with a theme?
Use a theme to help students understand and make connections.
They can make connections from a common theme such as farm or ocean and draw connections from their real world about related concepts. For example through studying a farm theme kids could learn that their morning eggs come from chickens, etc.
Thematic units are (or should be) taught over a period of time such as three weeks to a month. This helps the child focus on a concept or skill with repetitive practice so that one day master their learning tasks.
Variety within Learning
To keep things interesting (prevent boredom) integrate several subjects such as English language arts, Math, Science, Practical Life, Arts and Crafts, Physical Exercise, etc. This keeps students engaged through unit and helps make the activities more fun and provides an opportunity for kids to gain skills and learn about concepts they may not have selected on their own.