Create a Picture-Book Unit Study

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Based on The Ant and the Grasshopper by Amy Lowry Poole

by Kara Murphy

Creating core book studies or picture-book unit studies is a favorite technique for teaching young children. This low-preparation method forms the basis of the Murphy family’s teaching in the early years. Learn this enjoyable, easy process to build your own family-centered study using readily-available picture books.

Start with a well-written, beautifully illustrated storybook, such as The Ant and the Grasshopper retold and illustrated by Amy Lowry Poole. This classic tale set in a new location provides a rich opportunity to address character as well as content. Begin your study by reading this core book aloud to your children watching for theme ideas from the story.

As I read to my children, the following themes jumped from the pages: diligence and the consequences of foolishness, ants, grasshoppers, Imperial China (particularly the Emperor’s Summer Palace), Aesop’s fables, and contrasts (i.e. summer/winter). Don’t overlook illustrations as a source of ideas. Chinese architecture, lanterns, scroll making, and rice paper might be chosen from a study of the pictures in The Ant and the Grasshopper. Other ideas will present themselves to you as you read.

Diligence: Choose one or two topics to discuss for which additional resources are unnecessary. Diligence is a frequent topic of conversation in a household filled with children and one that I was prepared to address. Proverbs 6:6-10 directs us to the ant, God’s example of diligence and wisdom. I used a computer-based Bible search tool to find the location of the passage. Most importantly, we applied this passage to our life, particularly in the area of children’s chores.

I assigned each of the children to copy a passage from the picture book. The five-year-old copied: The ants kept on working. I emphasized the capital letter at the beginning and the period at the conclusion of the sentence. The eight- and ten-year-old copied: “Silly ants,” he would say. “You work too hard. Come follow me into the courtyard, where I will sing and dance for the Emperor.” I pointed out the use of quotation marks in these sentences. We also discussed the illustration of the grasshopper tempting the ants and that others (such as brothers, for example) can tempt us to make foolish choices. The three-year-old traced the word ant because he “wanted to do school too.” He also colored my very simple ant line drawing.

While the children worked, I developed a list of resources for our little unit study by searching online to find age-appropriate informational picture books. Books on grasshoppers and ants abound and supplement my shaky knowledge of insects. Resources can be borrowed from the library. I chose to add to our picture book collection realizing that I will likely repeat this study in a few years with the three-year-old and his little brothers.

Ants: A few days later our go-along books arrived. I read The Ant and the Grasshopper aloud again. We reviewed our discussion of diligence. We chose another book to read aloud, Ant Cities from the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series. Copywork was derived from this book and the eight- and ten-year-old were assigned to read the book independently. The eight-year-old asked to read it with me as it proved challenging.

The conclusion of Ant Cities suggests making or purchasing an ant farm. Our homeschool budget did not allow for this excellent idea, so I alerted the boys, and their older brothers, to watch for an ant colony as they played outside. Our gallon jar stands ready for the find.

The next day, this procedure was repeated, re-reading The Ant and the Grasshopper and then reading Are You an Ant? by Judy Allen. We drew the life cycle of an ant (egg, larva, pupa, ant) on a paper plate illustrating and labeling each stage. [Note: All the children illustrated ants better than I!]

In Favorite Poems Old and New, I found a poem, “The Ant Village,” on page 124. This poem provides excellent fodder for copywork and dictation. Often we memorize related poems by simply reading them in their entirety at the beginning of each day’s study time.

Grasshoppers: After reading Are You an Ant? we chose the companion book by Judy Allen, Are You a Grasshopper? Learning about the short life span of grasshoppers raised our sympathy.

Consequences for Foolishness: So, we discussed the consequences of foolishness. Young children often do like to see the lonely “grasshopper huddled beneath the palace eaves…wishing he had heeded the ant’s advice.” In another picture book version of this tale, the ants take pity on the unwise grasshopper, inviting him into their snug home. There is a time to emphasize compassion and grace. But the point of this tale is that there are consequences to foolishness. Draw your child’s attention to when “the grasshopper ignored the ant’s advice and continued to play and dance.”

Discernment: One recommended book, The Life and Times of the Ant by Charles Micucci (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), was disappointing. Although chocked full of additional information, it is just as riddled with the assumption of evolution as fact. I read this book with the eight- and ten-year-old (but not the three- and five-year-old) and we discussed the differing worldview it contained.

Imperial China: The author’s note at the end of The Ant and the Grasshopper includes information about the setting so I chose not to search for additional materials. Read the note with your children. Look for sparks of interest for further study. Also, any time China immerges in a study, we discuss and pray for our brothers and sister in Christ enduring persecution there at present.

Aesop Fables: Collections of Aesop’s fables, both picture books and chapter books, are common. Perhaps you have one on your shelf as we do. Draw your child’s attention to the fable in the anthology, if it is present. What moral is given?

Contrasts: The carefree days of summer are contrasted with the harsh, cold days of winter. Create a chart of opposites by folding a piece of lined paper down the middle. Brainstorm a list of words that show contrast: summer/winter; spring/fall; man/woman; hot/cold; soft/hard. Add to this list over several days.

Using these ideas we filled the week learning together. Did you notice how simple the techniques and methods are? To extend learning, older children can be challenged with research and writing assignments relating to one of the topics of interest. Follow this template or launch out on your own core book study using another favorite picture storybook as a basis.


The Ant and the Grasshopper retold by Amy Poole Lowry Poole (Holiday House, 2000)

Ant Cities by Arthur Dorros (HarperCollins, 1987) Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science book series

Are You an Ant? by Judy Allen (Kingfisher, 2002) Backyard Books

Are You a Grasshopper? by Judy Allen (Kingfisher, 2002) Backyard Books

Favorite Poems Old and New selected by Helen Ferris Tibbets (Doubleday, 1957) “The Ant Village” by Marion Edey and Dorothy Grider

—Copyright 2009 Kara Murphy. Originally published in Homeschooling Today magazine, July/August 2009. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

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