Teaching preschool is all about balance. Balancing silly with serious, calm with energized, balance across literacy, math, and science, balancing time so that each student gets some individual attention. And, of course, balancing free play with structured activities. Using thematic units is an easy way to bring structure to the classroom while still keeping plenty of time to play and learn!
Using thematic units in the classroom sounds complicated, but it is actually quite easy. By selecting a basic theme, grouping materials is a breeze, days run smoothly, and everyone has more time to learn, play, and have fun!
Room to Stretch, Grow, Play, and Learn
Choosing a thematic unit can be a commitment. Some schools pick a theme for a week or two, others select a month, and some go for as long as the students show interest. However, by having an extended amount of time with the subject material, there are numerous benefits for the children.
1. More Time Means Deeper Thinking
A lot is going on in a preschooler’s brain! Sometimes it takes a few days for the information to settle in. Taking more time with the material gives students a chance to digest each bit of new information at their own pace without being rushed. They can take a thought, think about it for a day or two, and ask questions about it as they come up. Things like, “How do astronauts get their groceries?”
2. Predictability and Routine
Most preschoolers thrive on routine. Knowing what will come next is vital for small children to feel safe. Using a thematic unit plan, the teacher can break down large subjects into manageable “bites” that fit into the daily routine. Having access to the same centers and materials for an extended length of time, students don’t feel like they have to rush to get their turn at the sensory table or dramatic play because it might change tomorrow. Knowing that the dramatic play set-up that they loved on Monday will be there waiting for them on Wednesday gives them something to look forward to, as well.
Using thematic units provides some order and structure to the day without being confining. It doesn’t have to be complicated. And it certainly should be at least several lessons long, if not longer. Depending on the structure of the school schedule, a thematic unit can last a month or more, as long as the students display interest!
3. Easy Does It – Transitioning
Transitions are critical to classroom management. By using a thematic unit plan, teachers can reduce the number of transitions during the day! Also, the teacher can gradually change over one center at a time, introduce different and more challenging materials as the thematic unit plan progresses, giving the students a gentler move to the next educational adventure. And for the child that maybe isn’t wild about the content of the lesson? They know that in a few weeks, the focus changes to something new!
4. Practice Makes Permanent
When beginning a unit, there will be areas that cause some students to struggle. With extended time with the thematic unit, students can revisit a center and work on skills over several days, giving them time to gain mastery over the skill. Having extended time with the material provides students more time to practice new vocabulary as well!
5. Time is On Your Side
Using thematic units in planning saves time for the teacher, as the teacher doesn’t have to set up five different dramatic play centers and sensory bins, and other centers that change every day throughout the week. The teacher can demonstrate how to use the materials on the first day, and then the students merely need reminders on how to use them on subsequent days.
Using extended thematic units gives students more time with the lesson concepts, allows them to scaffold across the course of the unit, and allows them to explore the ideas they learn in circle time in different centers. For example, a thematic unit on animals during circle time leads to students playing veterinary office in dramatic play, building a zoo in the block center, and writing about their pets in the literacy center.
Choosing Thematic Units
There are a few factors that a teacher must consider when selecting a thematic unit.
- Environmental – seasons, holidays, events, etc.
- Student Interest
- Availability of materials
ENVIRONMENTAL: Preschoolers are learning about the world around them, so it makes sense to choose thematic units that reflect what is going on in the world! For example, when it is fall, units on apples, pumpkins, and changing leaves make a lot of sense. Many teachers like to begin the year with an “All About Me” thematic unit as a way for students to get to know each other – and themselves – a little bit better. Maybe the class is getting a new guinea pig, so of course, it would be the perfect time to do a unit on pets.
STUDENT INTEREST: Some themes can be used year-round, such as colors, fairy tales, and animals. Student interest in particular topics leaves a lot of room for creativity. For example, if the class has a fascination with vehicles or rhyming, then they learn the material much more readily!
AVAILABILITY OF MATERIALS: Sometimes, certain materials are available that just beg for a thematic unit. Museums sometimes have “traveling boxes” that schools can borrow for a week or two at a time. Taking advantage of those opportunities is a must!
It is also important to keep in mind supplies that are available already as well. Selecting a unit on baking when there isn’t an oven in the school, for example, could be tricky. Thinking ahead and planning help ensure that the teacher has plenty of time to gather materials to have the most successful and engaging lessons for the students.
Not sure where to start? Here’s some help!
This Preschool Curriculum Catalog is a FREE, visual guide that will help you choose the thematic units of study that are just right for your preschool and Pre-K students!
Each unit description includes the subtopics and there is a complete alphabetical index of topics to make it easy for you to find exactly what you need! The entire PDF is hyperlinked. Just click on the picture to go straight to that resource where you will be able to see an even more detailed description and a complete preview!
Have fun playing and learning with your students!