Home Math Tips: Unit Studies

Summer is coming and most children are delighted to escape all that September to June learning–and some especially are happy to escape math! (And even in you are reading this in the middle of the “school year” and you are hearing those “math moans and groans,” you’ll want to read this, too, because it can be used anytime.)

Maybe you as a parent are happy to escape math, too–or…. on the other hand, maybe you’re worried that your child will forget all the math learned in the last months, or maybe you’re wondering how you can help your child upgrade math skills without all that moaning and groaning. Whatever your situation…

Unit studies might be the perfect way to make math fun, useful and exciting for little scholars … and for parents, too!

What is a unit study? Basically, it’s when you take an activity or topic–ideally, one of personal interest to your child–and you explore it broadly, bringing in all kinds of related “subjects” instead of the usual teaching method of focusing on one subject at a time. So if your child (and maybe you) are “allergic” to the word “math,” you can use unit studies to pursue math without even using that dreadful term!

How might a unit study incorporating math work? Here is an example unit study activity perfect for summer to show you how to start; you can use it as inspiration to create unit studies on topics or activities that your child really enjoys.

  • Camping and road trips! Is your family going on a camping trip this summer? How could you “sneak” math into camping? Here are some possibilities:
    • Planning the trip: get out the map and together plan the road trip.
      • How far is it from home to the camping spot?
      • What are the distances between places along the way?
      • How long will it take if you assume an average 80 km per hour?
      • Does Google Maps’ estimate agree with yours?
      • What if you decided to take some side trips or a less-traveled route?
      • What if there is road construction; how much will that slow you down?
    • Costs for supplies before and during the trip:
      • What camping supplies will you need to buy before you leave? How much do they cost?
      • Check out flyers for sale prices. How much money can you save if you shop the sales?
      • What will be the difference in costs if you make sandwiches at home before you leave, or buy lunch at a fast food joint along the way–or at a nice restaurant?
      • What is the difference in price between buying sunscreen (or any other product, for that matter) at a big box store at home before you leave, or forgetting about it and having to buy it at the campground canteen/convenience store?
    • Along the road: Camping is a great time to leave those electronic games and devices behind–but what will the kids do on that boring road trip on the way to the camping ground?
      • You’ve already done that planning map work–now watch for road signs telling how much farther to the location: then calculate how far you’ve already come.
      • Before you start, check the mileage on the car; now compare your calculation with the car’s calculation. Are they the same or different? What might account for differences?
      • Bring along a road map of Canada or both Canada and United States. Watch for car licence plates from different provinces and states. Locate them on the map. Using the map scale and a ruler, figure out how far that province/state is from your location “as the eagle flys.” Then figure out how far it is by road. What is the difference? Why does that happen?
      • When you stop at gas stations, note the differences in the cost of gas in different locations. Where does it cost most? Least? Why does that happen?
      • Have the kids watch for signs with numbers on them and write down the numbers. Who has the largest number? The smallest number? Watch for buildings and count the number of stories. Make up other number games like this. (Just remember–don’t mention “math!”)
      • What other road trip ideas can you think of?
    • At the campground: 
      • Which campsite is the best size and shape for your needs? Will a site fit your tent and car or camper? Not sure? Take out a tape measure (you brought one, right?) and do some measurements to figure out the best layout for your equipment.
      • You’ve brought a 20-foot rope to use for a clothesline. There are 4 trees in and around your campsite. Which 2 trees should you hang it from? Use the tape measure to figure out the best choice.
      • Bring a thermometer along, too. Check the temperature at various times of the day and decide, based on temperature, what would be the best time of day to do various activities.
      • What kinds of trees are found in the camping area? Not sure? Get out the guide book of trees and plants you’ve brought along and identify the trees. Measure the circumference of the tree and compare it to the averages listed in the guide.
      • Then it’s breakfast time. How many eggs and sausages do you need to take out of the cooler to make breakfast? Or if you’re making pancakes and you forgot the measuring cup for the ingredients, how else could you measure successfully?
      • Did you notice that sometimes the shadow of your tent or camper is large and other times it is smaller? Why not do some measurements (height of the tent/camper, length of the shadow) and use the Pythagorean theorem to determine the other “side of the triangle.” Check with your tape measure and/or a rope. While you’re at it, why not figure out the angles? Cool! Geometry is fun! (Just don’t mention it’s math!).
      • Going fishing? Weigh those fish, measure their length, record the information–and have a contest to see who gets the biggest one. While you’re at it, use your fishing guidebook to learn more about the fish, and maybe even do a “dissection” (Exciting!).
      • Swimming in the lake or river? Bring along a suitable thermometer and check the water temperature at different times of day and in different locations to decide the best times and places to swim.
      • What else can you think of?
  • Congratulations! Like all good unit studies, on your camping trip, you’ve not only studied math, but you’ve dipped into nutrition, economics, ecology, geography, language arts, biology, exercise…. Way to go! Lifelong learning!

So what if you’re not going camping? What else will you be doing as a family? What are your child’s biggest interests? Much as I hate to say it, even electronic devices have tons of mathematical connections (beyond just playing the games themselves or watching videos)–though I think summer (or any other time of the year, for that matter) is a perfect time to do other things, right? What about sports, animals, home-built rockets, mechanics, cooking and baking, art?

We live in such an amazing world, and with a little imagination, I’m sure that you can easily envision all kinds of ways to take your child’s favourite activities and topics and secretly mine them for all kinds of mathematical concepts and practical applications–as well as their connections to all kinds of other “subjects”!

What other unit study ideas can you suggest for exploring math? Please share them in the comments! Thank you!

Other posts in this series:

Games and family fun
Charts and tables
Books and workbooks
Online sites
Tips for kinesthetic learners
Unit studies

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