Lesson Plans, Activities and Games, Unit Plans

Top 5 Thematic Teaching Ideas

Teachers share their unit plans and tips for bringing a theme to life.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

One of this month's winners, Mrs. Jenevans, summed up the enthusiasm that naturally comes with thematic teaching plans: "Teaching thematic units can be extremely rewarding. When you are able to focus directly on a theme children can explore that theme while reaching all the variety of learning styles while having loads of fun! I teach thematically all year long."

Find inspiration for creating a themed unit from Mrs. Jenevans and our other winners below and share your own great ideas on the discussion board.

Also, remember to submit your ideas for the latest contest topic.

1. Explore Winter
Submitted by Jennifer Evans, C Grade PreK, Cascade View Preschool & Kindergarten, Oregon

winter thematic lesson
winter themes

My themes change monthly, and this month's theme is Winter. The best part of teaching thematically is creating an environment that is inviting for children. For our Winter Theme, our dramatic play area has several things to do. Our bulletin boards behind the dramatic play area are a great place to put a back-drop to our ice fishing center. I placed large bubble wrap on the floor to create "ice." (Hint: stomp on the bubble wrap yourself before the children do... or you just might almost have a heart attack from the noise it makes when the children do it... Believe me, I know...) Then use felt to create an "ice hole" and Velcro it down to the "ice" to stay in place. Have a magnetic fishing pole with fish and use metal buckets to put the fish in after they are caught. Add letters or numbers for preschoolers (for older children have sight words or spelling words on the fish). Also, use white felt and sew three balls stuffed with newspaper (or use your wonderful family members to sew it for you) to create a snowman. I made one tall enough for the children to stack the balls easily. Cut out felt pieces for decorating the snowman (e.g. carrot nose, black eyes and buttons, and a scarf). Don't forget to add winter wear in this center! The children have a blast putting on age-appropriate hats, scarves, mittens, and ear muffs! Hang snowflakes from the ceiling for fun!

During the month, the children learn in science: What is ice? Why do we wear coats? Where is the Polar Region? After you do your science experiment in class, don't forget to leave it out at your Science Center. We were blessed with snow in the valley a few weeks ago. So, bring it in the classroom! In a tub we had snow with droppers to develop small motor skills. Or you can have a turkey baster to do the same. Create a "winter scene" by adding blue food coloring to frozen "ice burgs" (water frozen in margarine tubs) with polar bears, penguins, and other polar animals.

In your Art Center, place natural items that remind you of winter. Collage with cotton balls, ribbon, poly fiber filling, clear or white beads, or paper scraps. Let the children cut and glue their own designs. Use empty sticker rolls (scrapbook stores and craft stores are very friendly in donating recyclable materials to schools) or yogurt containers at your easels to create snowmen with white paint. Use bubble wrap attached with a clothes pin in white paint to make "snow" on paper. The possibilities are endless.

Another great way to create a wintry wonderland is by placing winter books around the room. Don't forget to change out your reading space weekly with new winter books. This gets children excited about reading. Create a comfortable reading space with beanbag chairs and pillows. Add a winter Scholastic tape to the listening center (a tape player placed in a basket at the reading area). To help children learn to respect books and a great way to display your thematic books is by placing them on a shelf with books facing out. Children tend to treat books like toys in a toy box when books are placed in a basket or if the covers are hard to see. A beautiful way to make your own shelving is by buying chair-rail molding at your local hardware store. (It doesn't cost a thing to have the chair-rail cut at the hardware store to your desired length) Screw the pieces into the wall remembering to make the shelves at the children's height. Don't forget to add books about winter that you have read in class. The children love to replay the story to themselves or a friend.

At the end of the month, parent volunteers truck in snow to the back of our school. During our recess time, the children get all bundled up and we celebrate winter by playing in it!

During the theme, the children are able to learn in their unique learning styles during the day. Throughout the day the craft, story, science experiment, structured game time and center time is filled with exploring winter! I love to see the surprised look of a child when the have learned how to spell "snow" or when they have created a "storm" in a rhythm activity. It's rewarding to see the children's learning channeled in a direction and to see them able to retain everything they have learned throughout the month into the rest of the year.

2. Roller Coasters
Submitted by Jenelle Therrien, Grades 6 & 7, Emily Wetherbee School, Massachusetts
The first unit I teach to my sixth grade science students every September is Roller Coasters. It is a great way to make connections between science and an activity that most of them participate in several times each summer! We start by discussing personal experiences, sharing photographs, and writing descriptive essays about our experiences (mine included... they love that I'm a member of the "American Coaster Enthusiasts" club!).
Our goal is to understand and be able to clearly define potential and kinetic energy, but we learn a lot more along the way (it is a one month unit). Here are the titles of some of the lessons (they all include either reading or writing activities, and incorporate team, partner, and/or individual assignments):

  1. Introduction: Physics and Gravitational Forces
  2. Writing with Sensory Details
  3. Potential and Kinetic Energy
  4. Momentum and Inertia
  5. Types of Roller Coasters/Parts of a Roller Coaster
  6. Summarizing: Taking notes during a vocabulary-rich video
  7. Using Computers to Research: Writing a 5-Paragraph Research Report
  8. Reading and Understanding Maps: Theme Park maps of Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio and Hershey Park in Pennsylvania (they send me about 100 copies each year, free of charge! These are great for discussions about the U.S.)

The final week is spent with teams traveling through three centers, creating three different types of models: a computer simulation using the program "Roller Coaster Factory 3," a conceptual model on a sheet of poster board that includes previously learned vocabulary terms, and a physical model using various sizes and shapes of PVC tubing.

I have a shelf in my classroom titled, "Current Science Topics," which is well stocked with books about roller coasters. The "text" book that we read from is a great book by Nick Cook titled, "Roller Coasters -- or, I Had So Much Fun, I Almost Puked." The best video I've seen to date is "Extreme Roller Coasters," which features some great interviews with designers and fans alike. As far as the internet goes, nothing beats the Roller Coaster Data Base (www.rcdb.com). Occasionally I'll pick up something great at a yard sale, such as a K'Nex roller coaster set, a roller coaster puzzle, a different video or computer game, or even a coaster book, occasionally... these things are all great to have around for bonus work or for that student who just can't get enough! I have been told by many students that this is their favorite unit they've ever done.

3. Machines & Inventions
Submitted by Pamela Connor, Grade 3, St. Andrews School, Georgia
Every year in February my colleague and I teach our 3rd graders a unit on simple machines and inventions. We focus on famous inventors with a special emphasis on African-American inventors because it is Black History Month.

The children learn about all the types of simple machines in science while in literature we read one of the Frannie K. Stein books and talk about how all of them could be scientists like Frannie K. Stein. Then, they plan an invention using at least 3 simple machines that can help them do something better in their life. We've had homework helpers, breakfast makers, and even a machine that makes the kind of puppy you've always wanted! After the planning phase is completed and the simple machines are identified the children make a prototype of the invention using household objects like paper towel rolls, water bottles, milk jugs, etc. The final stage is to write a persuasive paragraph explaining why their invention is special and why someone should buy it.

We then put on an invention convention where the children in 1st and 2nd grades use play money and walk around and put their money on their favorite three inventions. The 3rd graders collect the money and see how much they earned from their invention.

This unit incorporates reading, writing, science, math, imagination, and creativity.

4. Pirate Test Review
Submitted by Shirley Mertz, G&T Teacher / Science Specialist; Crenshaw, Hamblen, & Schochler Elementary School; Texas


Since pirates are so popular right now, to help students prepare for the TAKS test (Texas' standardized test) we created a wonderful two week pirate unit for our 4th graders. We decorated the rooms to look like pirate ships. We used the student desks to help make a pirate ship. We hung sails, nets and other piratey things.

For the review, all reading and math materials was pirate related. The reading passages were all about pirates and for the math problems we used pirate names and information. We even had pirate games to help review. The students were able to earn pirate treasure for working hard. The students were having so much fun, they didn't even realize they were doing TAKS practice -- which normally they complain about doing.  Every year we now look forward to this unit.

5. Travel Pals
Jennifer Atkinson, Grade 1, Metz Elementary School, Texas

Travel Pals

Travel Pals: A Journey of Learning, is a 9-month long theme unit which will teach students about U.S. Geography. This theme unit is exciting and effective, because it allows your students to make real-world connections to places and people around the U.S. by tracking the adventures of a class stuffed animal, or Travel Pal. Students will collaborate to create a scrapbook of information to send out with the Travel Pal to explore the U.S. As information about the Travel Pal’s journey starts coming in, students will begin to track where their Travel Pal has been. They will also receive messages about their adventures through email and postcards and work on any number of projects from creating brochures about a city their Travel Pal has visited to writing stories involving a famous landmark. This theme unit culminates by having the filled-up scrapbook and a bag full of souvenirs from their Travel Pal’s trip returned to the students so they can use that to complete a chosen final project.

Throughout this theme unit, you can keep a Travel Pal hallway display so the whole school may learn along with your class. You can display a U.S. and world map, photos of the Travel Pals from their visits, ongoing projects, updates, recipes, cultural information, websites to check out and more!

My students are so incredibly engaged in this project. I broke my class into four groups, so we have four Travel Pals seeing the sites of the U.S. instead of just one, but you only need one Travel Pal to complete this theme unit successfully. Throughout this unit, students refine their map, geography, reading, writing, and presentation skills. They increase their technology skills by engaging in Internet research and using digital cameras. Students refine their knowledge of U.S. landmarks, capitals as well as learning interesting cultural and regional information. And all of this is done with real-life connections so the desire to learn and the product of work is elevated. It is easier then you think to find willing participants in this project. Ask friends or family members that live in other states, or ask local family members if they have any friends who live elsewhere. Sending an email to members of your own faculty will usually find you many caretakers spread throughout the U.S. It is easier then you would think and the amount of unexpected teachable moments that happen throughout this unit is amazing! If the whole U.S. seems overwhelming, having the Travel Pal jet set around your home state would be just as thrilling!

See a timeline and more detailed ideas for the Travel Pal: A Journey of Learning theme unit.

  • Subjects:
    Reading, Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Curriculum Development, Classroom Management, Arts and Crafts, Teacher Tips and Strategies

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