Making Unit Studies Work for Us

Back in late July or August I stood in my kitchen and told a friend that while Five in a Row would be a great fit for her, it would never work for us. Um yeah. Never say never right? But I was serious, because I didn’t think we were the unit study type. I had tried Before Five in a Row and other units repeatedly with the kids, and though we had fun with some of the activities and loved the books, we never could find a rhythm with it.

Fast forward about three weeks into the school year, and I was just not happy with the way our science and social studies were going. At the same time I felt like poor John was not involved in anything we were doing, and we were just not doing any of the fun stuff that should be the hallmark of kindergarten. So I started searching and many recommendations on message boards led me back to the FIAR website where I read over and over again that FIAR could (and should) be simple, that tons of extra stuff didn’t need to be added to the manual, that kids were excited to learn this way and on and on. So I took a good look at why unit studies had not worked for us before and decided to try again.

Feeding the ducks for The Story About Ping.

It has been such a resounding success, and I am so glad we gave this another try. The kids love the books and beg to read them over and over. We enjoy and can’t wait for this part of our school day. We are building memories that will last a long time. Once I realized that we could do unit studies they way we want and now how everyone else does them, then we found success. Here are some of the ways we make it work for us.

  • We build suspense and live with the book. I always put out the next book a day or two ahead of time so the kids can pick it up and ask questions about it. They usually ask to read it right away, but I make them wait until FIAR time. As we study each book, it stays displayed in our breakfast nook for easy perusing and reference during conversation.
  • We keep each unit short and simple. We never spend more than five days on a unit. Often they are not five consecutive days because we only school four days a week and take frequent breaks, but when we finish one book we just go on to the next, not waiting for a Monday or move on. I think this holds the kids’ interest better. I don’t do elaborate plans — just jot down what we want to do for each book and spend a few minutes locating some resources.
  • We are going for exposure, not mastery. We are not trying to memorize facts or cement our knowledge in any subject. We just want to hear and become familiar with a variety of topics. I fully expect us to revisit (called re-rowing in FIAR lingo) most of these books again, at which time we will study the topics in greater depth.
  • We do activities we like. This means for Madeline we did not make the Madeline toilet roll cut out paper doll, but we did locate and talk about our appendix and now we know it is on the end of the large intestine. We avoid paper crafts and large, involved lapbooks. We love hands-on activities, science experiments, additional books on the subject, art, and drama-related activities.
  • We add food. I have yet to buy the FIAR Cookbook (it’s on my wish list), but we have still managed to cook something for each book. This is always a favorite activity.
  • We use a wide variety of media. If there is a movie, video clip, BrainpopJr video, or computer game that goes with what we are studying, we hook up with it. Those are some of our favorite things that make learning fun for us.
  • We are creating a notebook. This is not busy work, but is intended to be a memory book of what we have done. We create a title page for each book and add in pages for the activities we do if it is relevant. Sometimes we don’t have “paper” work for our activities, so I take and print out photos of what we did for both notebooks. They already have fun flipping through the book to see a record of what we have done so far. I imagine it will be a treasure by year’s end.
Learning about personification with Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

I picked up FIAR Volume 2 and hope to add Volume 3 later this year. I could certainly see this being the way we learn for the early elementary school years at least. There are books to revisit and study more in-depth, similar-style units at Homeschool Share, and I imagine I will write some of my own units on other books we love in the future. When Thomas is old enough we will roll him into our studies, and as everyone else gets older I will expect deeper learning and greater involvement. As long as we love it and are learning, we will do it.



  • Monica . . . says:

    “We avoid paper crafts and large, involved lapbooks. We love hands-on activities, science experiments, additional books on the subject, art, and drama-related activities.”

    This is why I am avoiding it. Everyone seems to do a ton of lapbooks which I don’t think are the right fit for us. But, does the book recommend these other hands-on activities that you do? From what I’ve heard it doesn’t, and the idea of looking for and hunting down these exhausts me. I keep coming back to FIAR…..can I get your feedback?

  • Pam says:


    Hi! Thanks for stopping by the blog. I hope I can answer your questions.

    I think that the FIAR manual does a good job of coming up with non-crafty activities for each book. Many of the things we do come from the book. For example, a number of books have had a dramatization or pantomime activity under art. The art activities are usually drawing or painting using techniques used in the story books — not crafty things at all. Many of the activities just have a discussion element to them — talk to your child about this or that. For Katie and the Big Snow one activity was to make a town out of blocks — my kids loved that. In Mike Mulligan we put googly eyes on our sippie cups and gave them names and personalities — that came straight from the book for personification. There are some simple science experiments. I do add extra stuff as I find it, but you don’t have to. Actually if you get down to it, the FIAR book is much more about doing FIAR the way we do it, than the crafty/lapbooking way.

    I think the examples of FIAR on the website do a poor job of illustrating the amount of choices and depth that is available with the lessons in the book. Also, it is NOTHING like BFIAR, which I never appreciated before, but could possibly with my younger one now I know the direction this curriculum goes later. I was always trying to make BFIAR much more crafty/cutesy than the book intended.

    I love the pulling together of things and research so I seek out videos and books and other activities. But the majority of what we do comes right from the book. And I have given up all pretense of writing anything with this curriculum. As I said above were making a notebook with some of the lapbooking elements, but that got to be like pulling teeth, so I dropped it too. I still want to have my Ker draw a picture and narrate a sentence for each book we do, but I haven’t started it yet.

    I think the best thing is to get a copy of the book through ILL if you can. I didn’t really know it until I could hold it and use it a time or two.

    Hope this helps.

  • Rivka says:

    Hi Pam! Thanks for helping me find your blog. Our styles for FIAR sound very similar. We never do lapbooks and rarely do crafts, but my daughter loves acting out the book and the topics of the week usually make their way into her pretend games as well. The only things we really add to the manual are go-along books, field trips, and the occasional science experiment – and even that stuff usually comes right out of the FIAR archives.

    I think it’s kind of a shame that lapbooking has taken over the FIAR world to the extent that it has. To me, a major strength of FIAR is that it is so informal and conversationally-based – you’re not trying to pull a lot of “products” out of a young child.

  • Pam says:

    Oh I agree Rivka. You hit the nail on the head about FIAR. I guess the problem is most people don’t feel that conversation=learning. Such a shame.

  • Pamela says:

    Just stumbled upon your blog post. I started FIAR today and this post really put things in perspective for me. I am going to chill and out and just let the learning happen now. For instance while I was reading Make way for ducklings today, my little one was sitting in a bean bag and talking about how it was a nest and unfortunately I didn’t jump on that like I should have, but I will now!!! Thanks!

  • Rachel says:

    What does incorporating a Morning Basket with FIAR look like? Thank you!

    • Pam Barnhill says:

      Rachel – FIAR would be what I would do in my Morning Basket. They fit so perfectly together — reading, everyone working together, great discussion. I would choose some books to read along with what we were rowing and then add in some simple music or picture study depending on what my family likes.

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