When Unit Studies Don't Work

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.

If you want to encourage more rabbit trails in your home, pay attention so you notice the jumping off points when your kids ask a question or express an interest about something in a book or video, or even in real life. Let the trails evolve largely on their own, in a natural, meandering way. If you find your kids don't readily connect one idea to another idea, then you can help it along, gently. So gently, that your kids don't detect that you are leading them. If they take the bait, wonderful. If they don't respond, move on.
Let's use the previous Little House on the Prairie as an example again:
Say you are reading about the part when they are in Kansas, and you recall that your grandmother was born in Newton, Kansas, so you get a little animated and tell them, briefly, that Kansas is where their great-grandma was born. You say "oooh, I wonder how close great-grandma lived to where the Ingalls lived - let's get the map out and see!" You all look at the map for a few minutes, talk a little about the map, and then go back to reading.
Later you come to the part about the pennies that Mary and Laura get pennies for Christmas. Your kids hop up to go get their piggy banks and look at their pennies. Then they start sorting their coins into piles of like kinds. They wonder how much money they have and you show them how to group their coins together into $1 chunks and they ask all kinds of questions about how many of each kind and what combinations make $1. Then one child finds a coin with their birth year and they start digging though them again to look for other meaningful years and end up stacking the pennies chronologically.
Someone says they want to clean their coins, so you quickly look up "coin cleaning" online and find that ketchup and salt can clean coins, how fun! Then all the kids want to clean their coins with ketchup and salt so you provide little bowls and scrounge around for old toothbrushes for each of them and they work happily for nearly an hour, chatting about coins and how much money they have and what is in ketchup. Someone asks why ketchup cleans coins and you read that the vinegar in the ketchup is what cleans the coins and the salt is an abrasive. Someone asks how vinegar is made, which you also look up, and you find you can make homemade vinegar, but it takes a long time.
The kids are disappointed that they can't make vinegar right now, but you recall that you can make butter pretty easily, that gets them excited again, so you look that up online too. You find you need heavy cream, which you don't have on hand, so you suggest a quick clean up and a run to the store - everyone is thrilled. 
At the store you compare prices on the different brands, and you show your kids how to find the cost per ounce for proper comparisons. You come home with the heavy cream and find a jar with a well fitting lid and let the kids shake and shake and shake.
While they shake, you make lunch which includes hot dogs with ketchup, and toast with butter, and you let everyone spread their own homemade butter on their slice.


A successful morning of learning, and now it's free time.
The kids run out to the yard and talk about coins and ketchup and butter and the rabbit trail continues.
You look back at your morning and realize that your kids learned literature, geography, family history, math, science and home ec., and they loved every minute of it! And all you did was read aloud and allow getting side-tracked. Wow! 

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!



  • Wow, what a great article. I wish I could time travel and read this before I started homeschooling

  • Ya, this is pretty much how it goes at my house. I can’t count how many times I’ve been driving and my kids will ask a REALLY good question that I can’t answer without the internet (I don’t own those crazy Smart Phones). So we write it on our ‘driving list’ and go look it up when we get home. I’ve done the preplanned and forced unit studies, but somehow, I never pushed hard to fight the rabbit trails. I don’t have the ability to see all the different subjects being learned as we descend the trail so I usually beat myself up for not ‘doing school’ that day. Then I tell someone (usually my mom) what we did for the day and she helps me see all the learning that happened and that calms me down…till next time. Thank you for your post. Most of all Thank you for affirming my way of educating.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published