Have you ever prepared a great unit study on a book you want to read to your kids, like Little House on the Prairie? You've got it all planned - you will make a corncob doll, build a little covered wagon, create a salt dough map of the US with their travel route on it, and then memorize the words for one of Pa's songs.
It took hours, but you have all the supplies you need, including printed instructions and everything is laid out and ready to go.
You get started reading, and your kids ask what bull dogs look like and lots of other questions, which you answer curtly, because you just want to finish the chapter without interruption.
When you are done reading your kids are all excited about pennies and they want to go get their piggy banks to look at their coins, or they want to go outside and build something like Pa, but you tell them no, because that is not the plan.
You get them back to the table, and they love making their little corncob dolls, then for a few minutes they enjoy building the little wagons out of popsicle sticks, but soon they are messing around making who-knows-what and now you don't have enough supplies to finish the wagons. Argh! Nothing works out just the way you wanted it to, and it all goes downhill from there until you finally give up and tell them to go play while you clean up the big mess.
When you try to pre-plan a unit study, you lose the natural unfolding and momentum, because you have to bring the kids back to your agenda. Not only do you get frustrated that they keep wandering, but they begin to resist your ideas and then no one is having fun or learning anything.
Try following the rabbit trails instead.
A better plan might be to just collect what resources you can ahead of reading the book and keep them handy to use when inspiration strikes. When you find you don't have something for the rabbit trail, you can all go get it together. The kids get to be involved in pursuing the learning, rather than having it all laid out, it should feel spontaneous, not like a lesson.
Following a rabbit trail, when it appears, is a bit like doing a unit study on the fly.
The effect of all this is that they not only learn about the topics that come up, they are also learning how to learn, how to find the information they seek, and when they pursue it, they learn it at a much deeper level.
Rabbit trails can be all kinds of lengths, some will last a couple of focused and intense hours, others will last weeks or even months, and many will be just a discussion from one topic to the next during a car ride.
A rabbit trail is kind of like the book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie", one thing leads to another, in an unexpected manner.
Now, if nothing like that has ever happened at your house you may think that sounds a bit unrealistic, but I can tell you that all of that did happen at my house, though maybe not in exactly that order, and probably not all on the same rabbit trail (all the rabbit trails in my memory are jumbled up), but you get the idea.
Large rabbit trails will not come up every time you read, and that is probably a good thing because they can be a whirlwind, but even short rabbit trails are wonderful. I always encourage them when the opportunity presents itself. Not only is it fun, but it really helps kids (and us moms too) see the connections between everything. Learning isn't compartmentalized into separate subjects all the time, you allow, and even welcome, getting side-tracked, as that is where the best learning often happens.
I hope this helps you to see and encourage the rabbit trails that appear.
Need more inspiring read alouds? Check out my 10 year old's favorite audio books.
Have you had any disastrous unit studies or great rabbit trails lately? I'd love to hear about them, so please comment below!