Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Unit Study on China and Japan

We discovered Unit Studies six months into our home educating adventure. As many new to home education do, I had purchased a packaged curriculum - a regimented, fill in the blanks workbook approach and it was soon evident that it was not working for our first son who was a sensory hands on learner... he needed some action!
I found out about Unit Studies on a Alaskan home educator's website. I read her articles with a growing sense of excitement and utilised her Unit Study on the five senses. What a difference it made to my son's learning experience! He loved making a mask with a huge tongue and labeling the different taste areas and playing a ' Guess the smell' game'.To see him so happy and motivated to learn, rather than in tears and expressing boredom and frustration over having to complete yet another page in the workbook was all I needed to ditch the curriculum and we adopted the Unit Study approach without any further hesitation.

Unit Studies are a way of integrating different subjects under a common theme. Activities are hands on and multi- sensorial. Reading, writing and even maths can be incorporated but Unit Studies are particularly suited to science, geography and history topics. Multi- level teaching is possible, as many of the activities can be adapted to suit different age groups and you can upgrade the requirements for older students.

There are many published Unit Studies available to purchase and many are available to download for free on the net but as I had experience in writing teaching plans and objectives (As an occupational therapist I used to run a Lifeskills Programme for people with severe learning disabilities) I was confident I could plan and write my own units for my own children.

Other home educators are usually surprised to find that I plan my own curriculum and write my own Unit Studies but there are so many resources out there to help you put together a teaching plan, so many art and activity books and even everyday household items, that will give you ideas. I start with a theme and initially brainstorm... what do we need to know about China and Japan? Geography, history, culture, food, language. I then go to the books, visit the library, surf the net and begin to write down ideas for reading, writing, art, cooking, and any other activities that I think we may be able to integrate into the unit.

Books and resources I used for our Unit Study on China and Japan

So here it is, our Unit Study on China and Japan. It is divided into two sections...we studied each country separately and then compared what we had learned, what were the similarities and what were the differences both in the past and today. This Unit is from 2005 and in recent years most people will be aware of the growth in China's manufacturing industries.This could be a good research topic for an older student. My children were between the ages of 5 and 12 when we undertook this unit, so it is essentially a primary level unit but could easily be adapted for early high school students too.

You are welcome to use this Unit Study in your own home education programme but I would appreciate it, if you acknowledge me as the author and source ( and do not copy out the goals for educational review purposes ( if you are required to submit written outcomes to an authority) I have spent a long time writing these units, they are my own work and in the future I may consider adapting them for publication.

Chinese Whispers/I'm turning Japanese


During this Unit students simultaneously study China and Japan. Exploring two countries side by side gives them the opportunity to compare and contrast many different aspects of Chinese and Japanese life.... people wear silk and drink tea in both of these countries but everyday life can be very different and the opportunities for Japanese people are far greater.
This is very much a hands on unit, as there are many oriental arts that can be attempted such as origami, creating Chinese paper lanterns, making sushi, learning to use chopsticks. The Chinese Whispers' unit culminates in a Chinese dinner party and the 'I'm turning Japanese!' unit in a traditional style Japanese tea party which the students set up and participate in.

I have included the teaching objectives for the China Unit. Many of these objectives apply for the Japan Unit. Have the student locate Japan on the map, name its islands, etc. Describe its industries and technologies. An added requirement for this unit would be to describe the Japanese tea ceremony and its importance to Japanese culture. You could also examine housing and design, temples and architecture, gardens and traditional flower arranging. The scope for actvities is endless.... think of the activities that will most interest and stimulate your children. One child could try making a kite, another might want to try their hand at Ikebana or bonsai. Younger children may enjoy creating a Japanese garden on a tray...using pebbles and creating patterns, making models of temples and miniature water features...use your imagination!

Teaching Objectives for China


Locate China on the world map or globe
1. Name at least four neighbouring countries
2. On a blank map, name and locate the four major rivers that flow through China
3. On a blank map, locate and trace the route of the Great Wall of China
4. Describe the flag and explain its symbols

Agriculture, Industry and Technology

1. State at least five different Chinese inventions and for at least two of these, give details of the impact of these inventions on the rest of the world.
2. Name at least two agricultural crops and for one of these, give a brief description of scale of production, land suitablity and environmental impact.


Name at least five animals that are native to China and for at least two of these give a description of the animal, its habitat and status i.e is it a threatened species?


1. Count to ten in Mandarin or Cantonese

2. Write out the Chinese characters for these numbers

3. Learn some simple greetings such as hello, how are you and goodbye.

Politics, Religion and Christianity (for Christian home educators)

1. Name the major political party that rules China, explain the basis it operates on and state some of the implications for the people that must live under its rule.
2. Name two traditional religions practiced in China and give a short description of each.
3. Name two Christian missionaries to China and for one of these give an oral narration of their story.


1. Describe the typical Chinese dress of a worker, a farmer, school children and the formal wear of dignitaries.
2. Describe Chinese food, making reference to typical foods, cooking methods and regional variations.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST (Having also completed your study of Japan)

Discuss the similiarities and differences in the above mentioned areas. For example, name the inventions that Japan borrowed from China and state how the Japanese developed and improved these inventions.

Teaching Activities

Language arts

Read aloud Visit the library to find books about China to read aloud at the commencement and during the course of the unit.

A good book for younger children is 'Every body Cooks Rice' by Norah Dooley, a Scholastic book which has a short, delightful story about a child who visits his neighbours; it introduces the cultures that eat rice (not just Asian countries) and contains recipes for each of the countries featured.

Christian home educators will want to read aloud stories of missionaries such as Gladys Aylward and Hudson Taylor. The Trailblazers series for children and the Christian Heroes Then and Now series by Janet and Geoff Benge published by Emerald Books and available from most Christian book retailers, both have excellent biographies on different missionaries who went to China and accompanying study questions in the Trailblazer books and separate study units available for some of the Benges books.

Have older children write their own biography of one missionary or person from Chinese history

Try to locate a copy of the movie 'The Inn of Sixth Happiness" starring Ingrid Bergman. It is about the life of Gladys Aylward. Once, all of England knew of Gladys Aylward, today she is virtually unknown, even to Christians.

Art and Craft/Cooking

Some suggestions for suitable creative activities. Again visit the library for books, you will likely find books with ideas for celebrating festivals that may have instructions for making

Kites and Streamers The Chinese are said to have invented kites, many craft books have instructions for simple kites made from paper and bamboo. Paint a dragon on the kite for a more authentic Chinese kite!A traditional style Japanese Carp streamer made by my son from tissue paper. This streamer decorated our family room window for a while! Carp streamers are flown on 'Boys' Day in Japan. The carp swims against the current of a stream and symbolizes strength and perseverance.

Chinese Paper Lanterns made from textured paper, decorated with glitter, a simple but effective activity

Chinese Silhouettes Paper and scissors are all that is required for this activity

Art work ... Wax Relief work. A simple design of fireworks drawn in wax crayon is washed over in watercolours using a sponge. This is very effective, especially when done in shades of red and orange. This is one of my older children's efforts... a tree set against an oriental sunset!

Wax relief art creations by my younger children depicting fireworks
Peg dolls using fabric with an oriental design or scraps of silk create costume dolls for both China and Japan. Use ribbon and braid to trim, black wool for hair and felt pens to draw oriental features for the faces. Old fashioned wooden 'dolly' pegs can be found in most craft stores.

Paper fans Embellish tissue paper with Chinese designs before pleating, glue wooden ice block sticks to alternate folds to create a more elaborate fans.

Origami .. a must do activity for the Japanese unit. We sourced authentic origami papers from Japan for this activity. A clear instruction book is a necessity! My children were better at it than me and this became a favourite rainy day activity for months afterwards (and still is!)

Chinese Calligraphy We used this activity to learn the Chinese numbers and decorated the fans and lanterns that the children created with the characters

Haiku Traditional Japanese poems that have a total of 17 syllables and usually three lines. The first line has 5 syllables, the second 7 and the third 5. The first two lines describe the subject and the third its essence. Nature is a common subject for Haiku. This is a great language arts activity for this unit.

Haiku by my children with an Aussie twist!

The first poem reads
'Goanna climbs high
Up a tree to sun bake
Claw marks leave a trail'

and the second...
'Snake slithers along
river bank traps water rat
down small hole'

Costumes and dress ups. If you decide to have a Chinese meal at the close of the unit involve the children in planning. Will you have costumes.... visit the op shops to find old dressing gowns and even Oriental dresses. Or borrow mum and dad's authentic silk dressing gowns from Japan as my children did!

Cooking Try to include at least one cooking session for each country. Use authentic sauces and spices and ingredients for a stir fry rather than pre- prepared sauces out of a jar! Have a go at making dumplings or perhaps you know a Chinese person in your community who would be prepared to teach a small class. To save you lots of work for a banquet invite friends to a bring and share 'Chinese meal' at your home. Use the artwork you created during the unit to decorate the house. String up paper lanterns and decorate the table in Oriental style. We used a black and red colour scheme... red candles on black oriental style holders, pleated paper napkins to resemble fans and served food in bowls and used chopsticks! Of course for the Japanese unit you should have a go at making sushi... lots of fun for younger children too!

For a traditional style Japanese Tea Ceremony you may wish to research the etiquette and process of taking tea. The 7 principles of 'The Way of Tea' are
1. Make a satisfying bowl of tea
2. Lay the charcoal so the water boils efficiently
3. Provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer
4. Arrange the flowers as though they were in the field
5. Be ready ahead of time
6.Be prepared incase it should rain
7. Act with utmost consideration towards your guests

We took our tea outside... sipping on green tea from small cups with no handles. The girls enjoyed creating 'natural' flower arrangements for the table or rather mat on the ground as we knelt down on cushions for a more authentic feel! This was in the days before blogs so I'm sorry to say I have no photos! Wish I had taken some!

Geography and Social Studies

Colour in printouts of the flags of China and Japan

Label a printout of maps showing provinces, islands, major cities and rivers

Lots of printouts can be found on the web, we subscribed to and this was money well spent as I used lots of their resources for various units.

As you come to the end of your unit on the respective countries begin to assemble project folders to hold the work or make lap books. We made a lapbook and a paper book for each country and arranged the work sheets, maps, and flags . We used pictures from travel brochures and school project books from newsagents to create collages and decorate the lapbooks. Glue in artwork such as the origami creations. I really find it is worth while spending some time to display the child's work in an attractive manner. A lap book or folder will become a useful resource for future reference and you may use the information and ideas again if you have younger children still to commence their formal education.

The Front Cover of the Lap book on Japan

The front cover of our book on Japan. The Japanese kimono figure is one of the book marks we made

In addition to the books and resources I have mentioned thus far, there are other books which I found indispensable for this unit. Now I am not too fond of the tribal mask on its front cover but setting that aside, this book 120 Great History Projects published by Hermes House contains lots of ideas and step by step instructions with photographs to create all sorts of historical models, costumes, games and culinary dishes. The instructions for the Japanese carp streamer are to be found in this book. It is divided into four sections 'Houses and Homes', 'Fashion Accessories', Science and Technology' and 'Customs, Arts and Entertainment'. I have used many of the ideas from this book in our history units.

A similar book 'The Illustrated History Encyclopedia Great Empires and Discoveries' published by southwater contains more information but also includes creative activity ideas to bring history alive. Incidentally, Hermes House also has a '150 Great Science Experiments' volume which is one of my favourite primary science resources. Love the photographic instructions in these books!

In addition to checking out books from your local library (check publishing dates), you may wish to use Lonely Planet guides for up to date information. Older Reader's Digest and TIME books usually have lots of colour pictures and even if the information is dated you could cut out the pictures for pasting into project books and decorating folders and lapbooks. Look out at garage sales and second hand bookstores for cheap geography books and old editions of 'National Geographic'. Travel agents may be able to give you last years brochures on Asia, if you ask in advance.

And of course there is always the internet! A world wide resource at your fingertips!

I do hope you have found this information about Unit Studies helpful, particularly, if you are planning a Unit on China or Japan. I would love to hear from other home educators too, about the types of activities they have found to be a success when studying other countries. There is so much scope... for other geography units we made salt dough maps and flags on skewers which were a huge hit in this house. My children have never forgotten the names and borders of South American countries and as a result my daughter ( she was about 7 at the time) knew the answer to the $64000 dollar question about neighbouring South American countries on 'Who wants to be a Millionaire' which the poor guy got wrong, she was practically shouting at the screen! Oh if only, geography had been this much fun at school!

With love and joy,


A Bite of Country Cupcakes said...

Ann you are all doing an amazing job at learning what interests your Kids.
I think finding a subject and one that really "makes your skirt fly up" and extending on it is a huge benefit.
It keeps them inpired and wanting more.
My Son is feather Obsessed and has had some great input from our Neighbour.
Lovely when someone takes a Interest in your Childs learning too

Suzanne said...

Dear Ann,
I wanted to make sure you know that your comment on my blog encouraged me greatly. Thanks so much for taking time to give me such an uplifting testimony!

Suzanne said...

I just had to come back and tell you how wonderful your unit study is. I am reading it in little chunks of time but I think I will print it out. A dear friend just went to China to adopt her 4th down's syndrome child and I found a lovely book through Barefoot Books called Motherbridge of Love that I am going to give to her. A sweet poem of an adoptive mother's love to her child from China. My Asperger's child has been fixated on China so your unit study will be helpful for the next few weeks of homeschooling!

Marqueta (Mar-kee-ta) G. said...

Hello there! I came to visit from Suzanne's blog, and thought I'd say hi. I love how organized your unit studies are. I try, but ours are usually rather hit-and-miss affairs! We have fallen in love with Japan, too. They are so precise in all they do, and really show a love for their families by the way they set the table, keep house, etc.



SF said...

Ann, you have inspired me and reminded me of this homeschooling approach which I read about many years ago. It's hard, with my daughter having done about 15 months of school then come home to homeschool with me, with all her school books, we have been swayed to use these (along with other things, such as reading great classics together). It's a battle. She' s bright girl, but like your son when he was little, she prefers to do things hands-on and exciting!! I admit I am struggling with what to do with my 4 year old and 13 month old whilst doing projects with her. Elijah loves to join in but is limited in what he can do just yet. I do think the multi-age unit study approach would work better for us. He has some little workbooks he loves, but he needs one-on-one help from me with those. Which causes me in turn to give Saraya independent activities such as copywork to do. Grrr! Then there's Will, who just wants to be up at the table with me. Not in his highchair, but on my knee- hands into everything. :)
I just know God wants me to do this, and will enable me thus, but today was a hard day. :( Forgive this long ramble!! Can you remember what it was like when you first started out with your first few children? Or when your twins were babies? Please tell me, how did you manage juggling everyone's needs?!
Thanks Ann, your blog is really inspiring me this week,

Unknown said...

Excellent work Ann. I am really impressed with the diversity and hand on activities which engage students.

I am a high school teacher in local state run high school. I teach Society and History (hence my interest in your work) as well as English. I also teach an option which I offered and introduced 12 months ago which is Animal Studies.

I think it is very important to assess the needs of each child and teach accordingly, though as you can imagine this is not easy with little time for planning , other than as a whole class approach. Very worthwhile though..and I love it when I hear students say "that was a fun class"..or " that was not like hard work at all...etc. I just wish I had more time! Currently on 2 weeks school hols and I shouldnt actually be thinking about work,,,

Tiqvah said...

Thank you for all the work put into this post.

I'm in the middle of teaching a unit study on Russia to a group of home-schoolers, and it has given me some directional ideas on how to continue and plan for the rest of the time.


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