Thematic Study

And why it works, especially for this age!

So it’s no secret that kids learn best when they are doing things that peak authentic curiosity and interest. It’s all about motivation, and motivation theory tells us that intrinsic motivation stems from this (but I’ll save the theory for another day). And a while back I wrote a post about interdisciplinary projects. Along those same lines, I’m going to talk about why you see themes come up so often in preschools or daycares, and why you might think about using them at home. And because I’m always all about staying true to your child, I’ll also offer some tips on how you can decide on themes for your own kids, rather than just using the typical seasonal/holiday themes that come with the calendar year.

Why Themes?

For the preschool/early elementary age range…and I’m talking ballpark…like ages 2-6, theme-based studies allow kids to naturally see and make connections across content areas, activities, and play. Learning occurs in our brains when we actively create new schema (the way we organize and remember information). If we don’t find a way to fit a new bit of information into a currently existing schema, or have the motivation to revise a currently existing schema, then we lose that information – this is the way our brain filters short term memory – either decides to take on that new information and consider it ‘learned’ rather than fleeting, or let it go and not remember or retain it (in one ear, out the other). So when we theme our work with these kiddos, we are creating a methodical environment conducive to building schema. Take a typical springtime preschool theme of weather, for example. It rains a lot in the spring, so kids at this age might naturally offer questions or comments about this: “It’s raining AGAIN?! Why is it raining so much lately?” And because they are genuinely curious to understand why, there is authentic opportunity to tap into this motivation to learn. So we begin to read books about weather and springtime and rain and the water cycle. And this leads us to tracking the weather at our own schools or homes, which helps to teach calendar skills and conceptual understanding of days and weeks and months. And this leads to water sensory play and and making our own rain sticks and creating a water cycle science experiment and keeping a science journal or notebook about what we notice happens outside when it rains and reading favorite stories about characters dancing in the rain and jumping in muddy puddles and I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Kids will want to read, and write, and study, and try, and play, and LEARN when they are curious enough to want to figure it all out. So we take all those isolated skills like learning letters and numbers and sight words and language development and we build it all into this so that we DON’T do it in isolation (where it’s most often boring and unmotivating). And voila, our kids surprise us because we never realized they knew how to explain the water cycle in their own words, or recognize the word rain in a book about weather, or write their own story about a mouse in a rainstorm. We see results when we aren’t even looking for them. And that’s magic.

Why Kid-Centered Rather than Calendar/Season-Centered?

I’m not knocking the season, holiday, or calendar-based themes you see a lot. They are all well and good, especially when a particular season or holiday is meaningful or exciting for your kid. But I’m telling you, if you follow your kids’ lead and pick themes based on what you notice their current driving interests are, you’ll be stunned at what they can pick up, and how fast they do it. So how do you do it? Kids probably won’t come out and say “Hey Mom I really want to know more about the solar system!” They may not necessarily have the language to express something like this. But what they will do is ask questions about the world around them, what they’re seeing in books, what others are talking about around them, and what they’re seeing elsewhere – like TV or movies or stores. So, what do you do to figure out a theme? Study them! Observe them closely by…

  • Noticing what types of books they are gravitating to (when Luca started asking for and reading books about space and rocket ships, we learned and read about the solar system and our planets)
  • Noticing what types of things they are asking questions about (when Luca started inquiring about where food goes once you eat it, we learned and read about the human body)
  • Noticing their choice in toys (when Dominic became obsessed with plastic dinos, we learned and read about fossils, dinos, and the Earth)
  • Noticing their conversations, with other adults, but also particularly with other kids (when Dominic started talking to his brother about diggers and excavators and backhoes and was using this specific vocabulary independently, we learned and read about construction vehicles)
  • Noticing their choice in movies, tv shows, or other visual arts (when Luca constantly asked to watch YouTube videos about zoo animals, we learned and read about safari animals)
  • Noticing their free play – what they do with their time when they don’t have toys or other people to play with (when Luca wandered around our yard endlessly hunting in tree bark and peering into the Earth, we knew it was time to read and learn about bugs)

It’s ok to get it wrong.

Yes, there are those times where I think I’ve thought up the greatest thematic study ever and it turns out to be a major flop. Either one, or both kids have no interest. And when that happens, I’ve learned to let it go (or just do it with one of them rather than forcing both). Abandoning it goes a lot better than forcing something that doesn’t want to be done. Because just as much as kids learn best when they are doing something authentic and meaningful and interesting to them, kids don’t learn if they are being forced…it just ends badly for everyone (been there, done that… learned the hard way).

Kid-Centered Thematic Study: Ants (An Example)

If you’ve followed my IG at all, you’ve definitely noticed Luca’s current obsession with bugs. He calls himself an entomologist, and has lured his brother right in with him. The past two months have been filled with worm digging, bug catching, and ant collecting. We even have five painted lady caterpillars right now that we are harvesting into butterflies (not sure harvesting is the right word – somehow that sounds bad). Wait, and I should add, I am NOT a bug person at all. But I suck it up and own it for the sake of the kids, and the good thing is most of the time I supervise while they do the work so I have minimal interaction with the actual bugs (thank goodness). So we’ve been doing thematic studies with all types of bugs, and right now we are in the midst of ants.

We started finding those huge black ants in our house once the weather turned from winter to spring. While Mom was grossed out and Dad was concerned for the infrastructure, the kids were on cloud 9 chasing ants around the house. That got Luca and Dominic asking questions like, “How did they get in here?” and “Why do we keep finding them inside, don’t they live outside?” And then they noticed that a lot of the ants on our walkway outside were the ‘baby ants’ (not really baby ants, just a different species), so that got them wondering, “Why are the baby ants outside and the big ants inside?” After a week of endless questions, I bit the bullet, ordered some ant books to pair with some of the bug books we already had, and began to think about how we could study ants and answer some of these questions.

I had just purchased the Nature Mega Bundle (Vol. 3) from The Hidden Way Learning in honor of Emily, and it had an ant mini unit that gave me tons of ideas and visuals. Usually this is how I get my ideas – I see things on other blogs or from other teachers and it’s a launching pad. I’ll steal a few things from what I see (teachers are the BEST thiefs!), but it’ll also jog my teacher brain and give me a gazillion of my own ideas. I’m pretty good at figuring out how to add literacy and math into any craft or play activity. Our studies end up being other peoples’ ideas with my own spin on it, or a mix of other peoples’ ideas and my own.

So, we read as much as we could about ants. We learned about ant colonies and the types of ants within a colony, we learned about the anatomy of an ant, and we learned about different species of ants – lo and behold those big ones are carpenter ants and are probably making nests in the wood of our house (HALP!) and those ‘baby ants’ are actually called pavement ants. We made an ant colony sensory bin using ground cheerios (dirt), moss from our yard (Earth), dried white beans (eggs), dried lentils (food), and plastic ants from the party store. We made model ants out of cardboard, buttons, and sticks from outside when we studied the anatomy of an ant. And when we learned about ant food – how they will essentially eat anything, we did an experiment to see if we could attract ants like at a picnic. And yes, we caught and collected (and released!) ants, and studied them and made drawings and diagrams and took pictures, applying everything we were learning to the ants we were finding in our house and in our backyard.

So yeah, now I know more about ants than I ever thought I needed to, but my kids do too. And not only that but they naturally practiced old and learned new literacy and math skills in order to do all of the things we did during the study, and got to be scientists while at it. I’ll take this kind of learning over workbooks and flashcards any day, and I’m willing to bet my kids would too!