Preschool Unit Study: “Towers”

During our family vacation our three-year-old son showed a lot of interest in a tower standing on the dike. We made a boat trip and every few minutes he asked, “Can we still see the tower?” He was so happy if he spotted it! So, we decided to make a unit study out of it.

Thinking about towers, the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy and the Eiffel tower in Paris, France came to my mind. Maps are also a point of interest of my son. The idea came up to introduce my children to some famous towers in Europe and link it to a printable map of our continent.

My children loved making a theme book to “read” and to show to their grandparents. The theme book wass made by stapling worksheets, flat crafts, and coloring pages together. I searched Pinterest and printed the following:

  • a map of Europe,
  • a “connect the dot” Eiffel tower from Paris,
  • “find the differences” Big Ben, London, and
  • coloring pages of Barcelona, Berlin, Moscow and Pisa.

The Bible story matching this theme was, of course, the tower of Babel. I added a printable of this tower to the theme book. While working on the booklet, my son asked for the letter stamps. That was a nice idea: stamping letters matches well with the confusion of languages. My daughter made the stamping extra confusing: she mixed up the stamps and the caps. Later she put the right caps on the right stamps. Great letter recognition activity!

We also read the Bible story several times, from different children’s Bibles. I told the story in my own words and let the children retell it to me.

On several occasions we talked about character — about being proud, like the builders of the tower of Babel, and how we need to be respectful to God and His commands. We talked about being polite and humble, and about being equal. Jesus loves every one of us!

We learned a song about the tower of Babel, which helped us remember the Bible story and not getting too proud. And, we learned a little bit about different languages through the chorus:

“Pardon moi

Was sagt du

No comprende

What’s that dude!

No entiendo

No capisce

Say what?

Dat begrijp ik niet!”

Last but not least: This unit study wouldn’t be complete without building. So, we played with our Duplo blocks to build a house and a big tower! Then we went into the kitchen to build a tower snack. We made some vegan whipped cream and counted cookies. Each got five cookies to build a tower, spreading the whipped cream on the cookie to hold them in a pile. Then we got to eat the tower. Yummy!!!

Preschool Unit Study: The Ark of Noah

We recently started the little children’s family Bible lessons by Sonlight Education Ministry. This week and last week we learned about Noah and his ark.

I want to share with you what I have done with my four-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son. I hope you gain some ideas.

We started our study with reading from the Bible. During this two weeks, we read about Noah in different children’s Bible story books. I told the story in my own words, and I asked the children to re-tell it to me. Sometimes it was difficult for them to tell the story in their own words, so I asked them questions like this: “Why did Noah build an ark?” or “Who told Noah to build the ark?” Repeating the story in different ways helped them to get more familiar with Bible history and the important parts of it.

For our preschool math, we had two fun activities. The first was Nijntje ahoi. This is a balancing game. My son and daughter had to take turns in placing Nijntje (also known as Miffy), her family, and the animals on the boat. Make sure there is a place for everybody! Don’t let any of them fall off!

The second activity was called “porcupine.” For this game we took 12 clothespins. When they were all mixed up, it was not easy to count them. Then we made four rows of three clothespins. This way it was easier to count. Then came the time to give the porcupine her spikes. My daughter knelt down and closed her eyes. I clipped some clothespins on her shirt, and she guessed how many spikes she had on her back. Then she could look at the remaining clothespins and count again.

For this unit study, we went to Batavia werf, a yard where they make a replica of The Seven Provinces, a battleship from the 17th century. We saw the wooden frame of The Seven Provinces. It was only 43 meters (a little over 150 ft.), but it looked so big. Noah’s ark was even three times bigger! We were amazed, realizing how much work Noah and his team had done to build the ark.

In an old Bible activity book from the thrift store, we found some nice little crafts. One was an ark and animal finger-puppets to color and cut out. Another activity was coloring the rainbow with only three colors. My daughter loved mixing colors to complete the rainbow.

We loved learning about Noah, and I’m sure we will study this Bible story again someday.

What to Teach a Preschooler

“How do you know what to teach your child?” I have had this question quite a few times since we told people we were going to homeschool our children. My answer is usually, “There are some great online resources available.”

But, sometimes a feeling of insecurity comes over me and I ask myself the question: Do I know what I need to teach my child? Am I doing the right thing? I’m not a teacher by trade. Maybe I would do something wrong.

In January my husband and I went to a curriculum fair. We talked to a nice lady of a Christian publisher, and she had a nice offer for a unit study to try. It came with three posters, the activities weren’t too scholastic, and it had also hands-on and outdoor activities. With my insecurity about teaching the right way, and all the hours I spend to create my own unit studies every month in the back of my head, we decided to buy that unit study.

At home I opened the book, and I was astonished. What stood out most were the pages and pages with learning goals. It contained 20 pages of learning goals, followed by 24 activities for three- to six-year-olds.

Observing my preschooler on 12 points while reading a short story?!? Did I miss something? Did I do something wrong? Do I need to set up an activity to teach my kids to set the table? No! We set the table three times a day. They learn how to do that. But, that is not “doing school.” Or, is it?!

Working with this curriculum made me realize I don’t have to feel uncertain about teaching my preschoolers. I know what’s important to our family. I know what I want to teach my children. We are homeschoolers, so we don’t have to teach how, what, and when the schools teach.

Buying this set curriculum had some pros and cons.

Pros:

  • low prep time,
  • meets the goals set up by the state, and
  • the children liked it.

Cons:

  • costs,
  • some activities geared towards a group, so my family with two children couldn’t do those, and
  • therefore, I was still tweaking the unit study to our own needs.

Is buying a curriculum wrong? No. You have to do what works for you in your current circumstances. It may fit your family, but in our case the cons won this time.

Did we waste money by buying the unit study? No. My children had fun and learned, and mom learned as well. Starting some kind of homeschooling so early is partly for me as a mom to learn — to learn what homeschooling is, to learn what and how to teach, to get some confidence.

I hope to encourage you with what I have learned so far:

  • You can’t do anything wrong if you love your child(ren).
  • Tell them about God and His love.
  • Keep an eye on building good, Christian character.
  • Lead by example.
  • Go outside, get some fresh air, and enjoy nature.
  • Nourish their curiosity by answering their questions.
  • Play together. Have fun!

Our Apun Unit Study Experience

 

This wall of snow is in Kotzebue, Alaska, a town situated above the Arctic Circle.

I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia — you know, that place that gets ridiculed when the occasional ice and/or snowstorm rolls through the southeast and completely paralyzes life there for several days, and where the grocery stores are sold out of bread and milk at the hint of a snowflake or freezing rain. So, snow has always been rather special; it was a much-celebrated event when it did arrive. But, I didn’t know the first thing about the science behind snow or the ecosystems where snow is frequent. My knowledge of the Arctic was vague and composed of cultural stereotypes.

In 2011 our family had the opportunity to visit Alaska for several weeks. At the time, my kids were still quite young: ages nine, four, and 16 months. My husband was working 12-hour shifts at the hospital there, which left me — a southerner with three brief years of snow experience in upstate New York — to navigate the town’s icy streets. It turned out to be one of the most fun, challenging, and meaningful experiences of my life.

The average high temperature in April is 21 degrees Fahrenheit in Kotzebue, and the average low is five degrees. It was a perfect opportunity to do a weather unit study with my third-grader, so we put up a chart on the apartment wall and tracked the temperature, precipitation, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure, and cloud formations. I had taken along a few lightweight resources, including the charts and crayons, a small poster, a rain/precipitation gauge, and the things we’d need to build a barometer and wind sock. (After our trip we compared the results with our Arizona desert environment.)

I wanted to visit the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, but it was a little over a mile from our apartment building, and we had no transportation. Cars are used in winter in Kotzebue, but snowmobiles are more useful as they can go over the frozen ice. Some cars and all boats are half-buried in deep snow drifts until late spring/summer. (Gas is very expensive. Kotzebue is supplied by barge before the bay ices over; supplies can only come in by air until the big thaw.) I turned to our apartment neighbor for traveling advice since the wind chill was -27 degrees Fahrenheit. She willingly told me where to buy a plastic sled, then showed me how to set up a box in the back for the bundled baby.

A half-buried boat appears to be cutting through waves of snow.

We proceeded to the Heritage Center at a snail’s pace on the frozen roads, me pulling the sled with the two younger kids on it and my oldest walking behind to retrieve accidentally dropped gloves and mittens from the sled riders. We arrived some 45 minutes later, with frozen tears on the 16-month-old’s face, just as the center closed for lunch. Ack! Thankfully we were re-routed toward the bay, half a mile away, where there were two restaurants to chose from. My kids were able to try a couple of local dishes and unthaw before trekking back to the museum, which proved to be a fantastic learning experience! I even found several great resources for a snow/arctic unit study in their bookstore.

This is the start of the Kobuk 440 dog sled race, a qualifier for the famed Iditarod.

The Kobuk 440, a qualifying dog sled race for the famed Iditarod Race, started and ended in Kotzebue during our time there. My seven-year-old even met John Baker, the Iditarod champion of 2010, who lives in Kotzebue. (The following year we tracked the Iditarod online, choosing a musher and team to follow for the long race of endurance.) We were also able to attend several cultural events that included native Inupiaq dances, handicrafts, clothes, and food. The Inupiaq people were warm and friendly; I thoroughly enjoyed talking with them.

A native Inupiaq demonstrates a dance about hunting walruses.

Though there is so much I could relate about our trip to the Arctic Circle, my point was merely to pique your interest in this subject as a potential unit study, or at least a special project for homeschooling. With the resources I gathered on the trip to Kotzebue, plus a few more I ordered online, we later delved deeper into this topic. The kids love snow anyway! (Apun — in the title of this post — is the Inupiaq word for the Arctic’s snow cover, just in case you were wondering!)

This is the view from our apartment window in Kotzebue at midnight (in April). The days were about 16 hours long at that point. People were out and about until about 2 am. The grocery store is on the right, where all the cars are parked. A carton of ice cream cost $10.

 

Here are some ideas for unit study projects (resource info below):

Handwriting & vocabulary (and art!) from Draw-Write-Now Book Four: The Polar Regions, The Arctic, The Antarctic OR create assignments and pull vocabulary from books on the subject.

YouTube has some great documentaries and “how-to” videos. During your next big snow, you could try building your own igloo! (My neighbors did that one year, and it was great!) Nanook of the North is an older documentary my kids found interesting.

Iditarod Dog Sled Race: You can track the musher teams online and document their times each day during the race, and there are many, many resources for teachers on the official Iditarod website. We made a dog sled out of popsicles (google instructions), followed the Iditarod, learned about the working sled dogs, and read several books on the subject.

Science:

  • The sky is the limit! And the sky is so amazing in the Arctic! We weren’t able to see any northern lights during our visit to Alaska, but we read some books (see below for reference) and watched some videos of the intriguing lights.
  • The Arctic tundra ecosystem — and permafrost. (Permafrost even affects how and where buildings can be constructed in the Arctic, but you can learn about its characteristics and the animals living within it, too.) A weather unit is a great learning opportunity.
  • Whales and their migrations: Whaling is a bad word in our modern vocabulary, but for the Inuit peoples, whales provided absolutely necessary food. (And, nothing goes to waste; they have a use for every part of an animal when it is killed.) In this culture, the breaking up of the sea ice and the return of the whales, along with whale hunting, was very important. These days, there is usually one ceremonial whale hunted, and the community comes together to celebrate as it did in the old days, especially up near Barrow, Alaska. So, studying whales can be a science or a cultural learning project.
  • Other Arctic animals: lemmings, Arctic fox, polar bear, walrus, narwhal, ptarmigan, caribou, beluga and humpback whales, peregrine falcon, seals, musk-ox, wolves, snowy owls, orcas, Arctic hare… Study how they keep warm in winter, their hunting habits or camouflage, diet, hibernation habits, etc. The story of caribou in Alaska involves a bit of Scandinavian history. Tracking in the snow might be a great option if you live up north.
  • Snow: The book, Apun, the Arctic Snow, is a fantastic resource for understanding and teaching about the science of snow. Written by an expert on snow, it is scientifically sound and has an adorable line drawing of a lemming (yes, you’ll want one) and snow crystals, diagrams, and easy-to-understand text. The author weaves in Inuit terms for snow, too. Did you know there are 35 types/categories of snowflake crystals?

    A display at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue, Alaska shows what a cross-section of permafrost is made of.

Geography: Identify countries within the Arctic Circle, prominent bodies of water, mountain ranges and peaks, an Alaskan map (larger cities and towns), rivers. You may want to include Antarctica. It’s also an interesting project to learn about the “North Pole” and its various locations.

Literature: I’ve included a few picture books below that our family loved, but your local library probably has some books you can add to this list. Books for older children/high schoolers might include stories of the voyages to the Arctic and Antarctica, books on Inuit culture and life, the story of how caribou/reindeer were herded in Alaska, stories of early travelers and missionaries to the area. There is an interesting story of Maniilaq, who was given visions that some claim meet the Biblical tests for a prophet. He lived and prophesied before Europeans entered Alaska, and he gave a message of one day in seven (the seventh day) being holy to God. There are a couple of books at amazon.com on his life.

Cooking: We picked up a kids’ cookbook in Alaska, but be aware that recipes tend to contain meat. For vegetarians, you might try searching the internet for recipes from Arctic areas, perhaps trying a recipe from a different country weekly. Another option is to make snowball cookies (aka Mexican wedding cookies/Russian tea cookies) and snow cream (1 gallon of snow, 2 cups milk or substitute, 1 cup sugar, 1 T vanilla extract — stir until creamy).

Physical Activity: Try a new sport! Snow skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, dog mushing…

These are just a few ideas to get started on your snowy journey… Have a great time making tracks! (And, feel free to leave your ideas, resources and/or experiences in the comments below, especially those of you from northern climates!) See below for a few specific resource ideas.

Rabbit tracks can be seen in several inches of snow on our front lawn.

A few of my favorite resources:

Nanook of the North (documentary film, > 1 hour in length, available on YouTube)

How to Build an Igloo (available on YouTube)

Draw-Write-Now: The Polar Regions, The Arctic, The Antarctic (barkercreek.com, early elementary/kindergarten handwriting and drawing book)

iditarod.com (official website for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, held in Alaska yearly; many resources for teachers under “education” and online games and information for kids under “students”)

Arctic Lights, Arctic Nights by Debbie S. Miller, illustrated by Jon Van Zyle (www.walkeryoungreaders.com)

Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod by Sherry Shahan (The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut)

Apun: The Arctic Snow (a book for children; teacher’s guide is available with more detailed scientific information, but does not have activity guides or a teaching plan; truly a resource or a great text for seventh-grade through high school)

The Great Serum Race: Blazing the Iditarod Trail by Debbie S. Miller, illustrated by Jon Van Zyle (www.walkeryoungreaders.com)

TOGO by Robert J. Blake (illustrated children’s book about one canine hero of the Great Serum Run of 1925, the event commemorated each year with the Iditarod Race in Alaska)

Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints by Millicent E. Selsam, illustrated by Marlene Hill Donnelly (a “Let’s Read” book, science stage 1)

Survival at 40 Below by Debbie S. Miller, illustrated by Jon Van Zyke (beautifully illustrated and a great science resource for elementary)

Polar Bear, Arctic Hare: Poems of the Frozen North by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

One Small Square: Arctic Tundra by Donald M. Silver, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (book about the tundra ecosystem written just for children)

My kids were attempting long-jumping beside rabbit tracks. The rabbit won.

Create Your Own Unit Studies for Preschoolers

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Today I want to share with you how I create unit studies for our preschoolers. A unit study is way of teaching your children on a topic they like, covering multiple subjects. On the sdahomeschools.com website are several blogs you can read about unit studies. For example, this one and this one.

In our home we’re using the unit study approach for our preschoolers (four and two years old). Since the children are very young, there is no need to buy a curriculum. I am trying to find out what works for us on our new homeschooling journey. At the same time, we cover the basics and learn a lot, and we are having fun. I create my own unit studies, because there is hardly anything in our own language. I do translate things, but that doesn’t work all the time. Also, by planning everything myself I can adapt it to our wishes and the interests, and the needs of my four-year-old preschooler. My two-year-old tags along for part of the lessons, mostly the hands-on activities like games and songs.

Since we began earlier this year I’ve made about 10 unit studies, learning how to create them as I’m going. I change it a little every time — sometimes because of the topic we choose, sometimes because my daughter now knows her ABC’s and wants something new or doesn’t like a certain part of our lesson. I’ve now developed a strategy to get to lessons I like at the moment. This is how I do it.

Step 1: Choose a topic, based on the interest of the child. As the mother, I help pick the topic. I try to spread the topics so we cover a wide variety of subjects. To give you an idea: Our last topic was “trip around the world” (geography). Currently we’re learning about fire fighters (social studies), and our next theme is elephants (nature).

Step 2: Collect ideas to fill the lessons. Pinterest is my favorite place to find games, crafts, worksheets, and so on.

We “do school” twice a week, and we stay on one topic for a month. So, I want to collect enough to cover eight lessons and one field trip. The lessons have the following subjects:

  • Bible / character building: prayer, memory verse, Bible story, and a song or hymn in Dutch or English
  • Language arts: vocabulary, read aloud, letter recognition, making words with our magnetic letters, pre-writing skills, and a song or poem
  • Math / S.T.E.M. activities: counting and understanding of numbers; measuring and geometry; sorting, classifying, and comparing; and an experiment
  • Home economics and personal care
  • Arts and crafts
  • Games (preferably outside)
  • Nature study

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I don’t do all the items of the language and math activities in one lesson, just one or two. Sometimes we do one activity that combines for example nature and math. On the other hand, I want enough options to choose from, so I usually have a few more activities planned than we actually do. We’re quite relaxed when it comes to homeschooling; it’s okay to let things happen or to skip an activity when it doesn’t work. This week one of our games was to transfer water from one bucket to another using a sponge. Playing with water is always fun. After a while the kids started “cleaning” the windows instead of doing the planned craft. And, with help of Mom, the windows ended up a lot cleaner!

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To give you an idea of what I plan for home economics and personal care: For our “trip around the world” theme, we did a lot of cooking and trying recipes from different countries. Now we are remembering our address and phone number, we talk about fire and personal safety, and our daughter learns the final touches of getting dressed all by herself.

For the Bible lesson I just started using Kids of Integrity, choosing a character trait matching the theme. Each lesson we do a prayer, a Bible story, a memory verse, and a song. We learn at least two songs a month, one in Dutch and one in English.

Step 3: Divide the collected ideas. Plan your lessons and field trip. Print the printables and make notes for other preparation. Go to the library to get a stack of books according to the topic.

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Step 4: Have a lot of fun with the lessons!

This way of teaching has been a blessing for us so far. I hope you give unit studies a try too!