Planning and Implementing Thematic Units (+ Freebie Unit Planner)

Planning and Implementing Thematic Units (+ Freebie Unit Planner)One of the simplest, and dare I say, most enjoyable methods of planning your homeschool year is through monthly themes. Themes package learning for most subject areas into one neat box.

If you are tempted to purchase theme units because you don’t have time to put things together yourself, this post will show you how you can truly do it successfully. It also includes a free planner for you to get it all organized in a jiffy.

Theme units are especially beneficial for a child with special needs because:

  • themes provide a natural progression of learning throughout the homeschool day–within many subject/ therapeutic areas
  • a wide range of materials are used–matching a child’s developmental level
  • the child knows what to expect within a theme–and this kind of structure is necessary for some children to thrive
  • language skills are reinforced because of the length of time in one theme–and the repetition of words and skills
  • the focus is on the process, not the final product–again, because of the time given to a theme
  • the child is given an opportunity to be actively involved in learning at his own pace

And, of course, planning a theme unit can help you, the parent, remain focused throughout the month while keeping an eye out for materials/ideas for future themes you have already planned.

Even if you are working with an older child at a higher cognitive functioning, using a theme can bring satisfaction and delight to your homeschooling days.

While you can go online to find a theme unit fully pre-packaged, I advise against this for 4 reasons:

  1. they aren’t personalized
  2. they probably aren’t adapted to your child’s needs
  3. they are often worksheet-heavy
  4. they aren’t as much fun to put together

How to Thoroughly Plan a Thematic Unit

1- Decide what theme you will focus on. Keep your child’s interests and developmental level at the forefront.  There is no use to work on a unit around the novel Charlotte’s Web if your child’s cognitive abilities are not quite there yet–no matter how much you love this novel and how much your child loves pigs and spiders.

How to select a theme?

There is no right or wrong theme. Use these categories to help spark ideas for your own theme units:

  • holiday/seasonal/weather-related (most popular–especially for the younger grades. I like this for a child with special needs as it helps him to internalize the rhythms of his natural world–no matter his age–and it can easily connect him to other people because the words/phrases/expressions used at a particular time of year will be familiar/reinforced).
  • based on a book/novel or text (ex: Charlotte’s Web might spark an animal study)
  • science-related (ex: the study of acid rain)
  • social studies-related (ex: a period in our history)
  • art-related (ex: the study of an artist)
  • genre-related (ex: the study of short stories or biographies)
  • based on a specific interest (even if your child can’t tell you directly, pay attention to what he is attracted to in daily activities, on TV, in games or toys, characters in books, sports or other physical activities, etc.)

I prefer to work under the seasonal umbrella for an entire learning block. Within the season, I select various monthly themes that fit. It works well for us at the moment because we are working at the kindergarten level.

It’s important to note that you need to keep the themes and the activities meaningful and relevant. I wouldn’t suggest studying kookaburras in the middle of winter if you live in North America. Change that study to that of a local bird that your child can relate to and even possibly see while he’s outdoors in winter. If kookaburras happen to be your child’s passion, save the unit for summer where he can compare kookaburras to other birds.

Theme units should be meaningful and based on what your child will see, hear, and experience throughout the unit.

2 – Connect the theme to goals. You may have already outlined the goals for this learning block using the 3-month planning guide I provided you.  If you didn’t, I recommend you take some time to work through that first.  Once you have overarching goals, you need to break them down into the three individual months within that quarter.

  • What goals can you tackle within January’s theme?  In February?  In March?

3– Organize the theme. This is where you decide what the specific activities will be. Brainstorm freely first, then decide which are most feasible and which need adaptations. Use online ideas for inspiration. Remember not to try to fit too much into one month.  It’s always advisable to allow time for your child to absorb the concepts so that he can meet the goals at his own pace.

Thematic Unit Planner

You can find this free Thematic Unit Planner printable in the resources below. It includes a space for brainstorming possible theme-related activities for the month. It’s great to have handy as you research online.

Thematic unit planner pages

Once you have finished brainstorming, these sheets help you to categorize your activities/ideas by subject. You can easily add these pages to your homeschool planner.

Thematic Unit Planner reflection pages

You will also be able to list your outings/visits, cooking/baking recipes, outdoor/nature activities, resources/materials required. You also have a space to brainstorm the adaptations you plan to make within the unit.

4– Gather resources and materials. What props will you need? What supplies are required? What about books. Gather everything you need for the unit.

5- Organize the learning spaces. At the beginning of each unit, clear out the old theme, store materials, and begin with a fresh slate. Will you add to the nature table over the course of the unit, or will you create it yourself from the get-go? What about your art wall? Playspace? Reading nook?

Get all areas ready for the new theme. You don’t have to purchase new materials. Look around your home to get each spot looking theme-related, or add as you go.

6- Adapt/modify the theme.  What adaptations will you make to this theme so that it matches your child’s developmental level but also guides him toward the intended goals? Don’t forget to integrate the therapeutic goals into the theme.

I’d love to know: Do you plan your own thematic units?  What challenges do you face when putting together a unit for your child with special needs?


Thematic Unit Planner (My free downloadable planner, you can print as many as you need and add the sheets to your homeschool planner on a monthly basis. After you’ve put the sheets to use, I’d love your honest feedback: usability, value, design, etc?)

Related articles on this blog:

Planning the Homeschool Year Series
Freebie: Your 3-Month Homeschool Planner
Simple Systems for Organizing Homeschool Materials, Paperwork and Student Work
Organizing for the Child with Special Needs

If you require assistance with adapting/modifying a thematic unit, check out my personalized services.

Homeschool Services

Tags: , , , , ,

Planning and Implementing Thematic Units (+ Freebie Unit Planner)

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for the printables!
    I love working with themes. I always try to use themes that connect what my older son is learning with what my younger son is working on. Right now Nathan is learning about Antarctica while Wyatt learns about penguins, ice and snow and their relevant concepts.

    Jasmin January 11, 2014 at 8:41 am #
    • Theme planning at its best, Jasmin! That’s exactly how to make it work for more than one child. Then, they can share their learnings with one another and the experience is that much richer! In the classroom, theme units work to meet the needs of many diverse learners. Each student takes away what is most meaningful to him/her – at his/ her own pace. Thanks for sharing this with others.

      Gabriella Volpe January 12, 2014 at 5:34 pm #