When young children start elementary school, they come from all walks of life with different skills, experiences, and interests. As teachers in kindergarten and first grade, it’s so important for us to celebrate and build upon those things they already know, all while making sure they reach our academic and behavioral targets. Thematic units are a wonderful tool to make the most of our students’ diverse backgrounds while keeping their curiosity alive and helping them grow academically! Using interdisciplinary themes to teach young children is a developmentally-appropriate practice that helps students make connections across subjects.
What is Thematic Teaching?
Teaching with thematic units simply means that classroom instruction for a period of time is built around a (preferably high-interest) topic.
This may include all subjects or just a few, but most teachers who use this method like to tie the theme into as many parts of the day as possible. Thematic teaching doesn’t always look the same. In some classrooms, it might look like full immersion into a topic complete with field trips, room transformations, and student-led thematic projects. In other classrooms it might look more like traditional classroom learning, but with a common theme interspersed across the subjects. As the teacher, you will need to decide on an approach that works within the culture of your school/classroom and your goals as an educator.
To me, the most important feature of any classroom using thematic units is that the students are engaged and curious. While participating in thematic learning, students should have opportunities to ask questions, engage in age-appropriate research, and have lots of conversations about the topic. This style of learning primes young children to become self-directed learners and allows them to drive their own quest for knowledge.
How to Plan Thematic Units
1. Research your theme.
After you’ve chosen your theme, it helps to brush up on your own expertise in the topic. Reading nonfiction children’s books and websites designed for kids is a great way to give yourself broad knowledge that will help you shape the scope of your unit. The thematic units in my shop each contain a PowerPoint slideshow full of basic information to help you (and your students) get started.
2. Set thematic learning goals.
Once you’ve done your own basic research on your theme, it’s time to decide what you want your students to learn. If you’ve chosen a theme based on a grade-level science or social studies standard or a district curriculum expectation, these goals may already be laid out for you. You will just need to read through those content standards and, if necessary, break them down into manageable parts.
If you’ve chosen a theme that isn’t specifically required, you might still want to use your standards as a guide.
For example, you might not be required to teach specifically about apples in the fall, but your apples thematic unit can still help you meet some of your curricular standards. Check your science standards to see which standards your apples unit might naturally include. (Look for things like plant life cycles, what plants need to survive, or how humans interact with their environment.)
You might also be able to touch on some of your social studies standards by including Johnny Appleseed (folktales and legends, then and now…), discussing how apples are a part of customs and culture, looking at maps to see where apple trees grow, and exploring apples from an economic perspective (goods vs. services, jobs at an apple orchard, products made from apples…)
Don’t let your learning standards keep you from choosing a high-interest thematic unit. In most cases, it’s possible to steer your theme to meet your grade-level goals even if the theme isn’t explicitly part of your curriculum!
3. Map out your cross-curricular standards.
If you want your thematic unit to encompass the whole school day, you now need to look at the language arts and math standards that you plan to cover during the course of your theme. Listing these goals will help you with the next step—planning your activities! Reading and writing standards are often easy to authentically tie into a theme with read-alouds, shared and independent reading, and writing activities. For math, you can consider thematic centers and practice pages as well as incorporating math into a thematic dramatic play area.
4. Plan your activities.
Now that you have your goals organized, you get to do the fun part—planning all the thematic activities! Whether you start from scratch or use units that have already been created, you will need to tailor your unit to your goals and the levels of your students. Education blogs, social media, and your colleagues can offer great inspiration for creative activities. You can find my thematic teaching blog posts here.
Be sure to plan some activities that are open-ended enough that your students are helping to guide your instruction. Beginning with a KWL or a brainstorming session helps ensure student engagement and buy-in to your theme. (Tip: As you plan each activity, keep a running list of materials you will need to find, borrow, or purchase!)
5. Gather your materials.
With your thematic unit all planned out, all that’s left to do is gather your materials! Your school’s media specialist (and/or your public library) will likely be able to help you out with a collection of children’s books, both informational and fictional, that tie into your theme.
(You may also want to check out the PowerPoint presentations in my thematic units as a way to share informational text and photographs with your class!)
Videos can be a great supplement to children’s literature and there are lots of high-quality ones online. Take the time to bookmark your favorites so they will be ready when you need to fill a few minutes. TPT is a great source for thematic printables and centers and your local dollar store may have small items that you can use as manipulatives.
Saving Time with Pre-Made Thematic Units
Building your own thematic units can be really fun and rewarding, but it also takes a lot of time. If you want to save yourself some time, you can jump-start your planning by purchasing my thematic units. While you can find the whole bundle of them here on TPT, I also want to share an exciting new way you can access these units.
I have added each of the 15 thematic units to my shop and have also created a listing for a custom Build-Your-Own Thematic Units Bundle! What is different (and I think great) about this bundle is that you can select anywhere between four and all 15 of the units, saving an increased percentage as you go. This way you get the money-saving advantage of bundling without having to purchase units you know you won’t end up using.
How are the My Happy Place Thematic Units Structured?
Access background knowledge and set a purpose.
Each of my 15 thematic units includes printable headings for a KWL chart along with a sample chart. You can use these as a supplement to a brainstorming session that will help students connect their new learning to prior experiences. Asking students to contribute their questions to your chart shares ownership of the theme with them and can really increase engagement!
Build knowledge with a slideshow.
Each set also includes a nonfiction PowerPoint slideshow. These slideshows are packed with interesting info and eye-catching photographs that will help you set the stage for further inquiry. You can project these slideshows and treat them as read-alouds. As you read with students, refer back to the KWL chart, making adjustments and noting when you find the answers to questions. Having these age-appropriate and informational slideshows at your fingertips is a big time-saver!
Use anchor charts to organize learning for informational writing.
In addition to the KWL charts, these sets include materials for organizational and content charts you can create with your students as they learn about the theme. These anchor charts will then support students as they engage in informational writing tasks. With the charts as a scaffolding tool, even beginning writers will be able to compose informational sentences!
Develop connections with thematic activities.
Each of these thematic units includes a number of age-appropriate thematic activities to keep curious students eager and focused. Fueled by their newfound knowledge, students love reading, writing, talking, and thinking about the theme. Within these sets, you will find poems and songs, printable books, science experiments, arts and crafts, templates for sentence strip headbands, and more! Several of the units also include themed worksheets to use during your math and language arts time.
I hope this post has helped you with your thematic unit planning! Please leave a comment if you have any questions or ideas you want to share. Thanks so much for reading!