Sarah Janisse Brown, creator of The Thinking Tree Books, also known as Fun-Schooling, has created a huge variety of specific-topic books for different age groups from preschool to adult. Some of the many topics for the journals are science, history, spelling, handwriting, money, journalism, fashion, Bible, sports, inventors, and even Minecraft. There are curriculum bundles for each grade specifically for either boys or girls. And there individual resources for dyslexia and dyscalculia and grade-level bundles for students with dyslexia or ADHD.
Brown’s fantastic artwork will probably grab your attention first. Most of these books are heavily illustrated, and most of them provide opportunities for children to color in the illustrations. Thinking Tree books are printed in black and white for that purpose.
However, these are not primarily coloring books. Rather they are guided-journal books that encourage students to explore the outdoors or dive into a specific interest and research using books, documentaries, and websites.
While Brown is a Christian and has many Bible-themed journals, most of her books have no religious content. Also, most of these books can be used with multiple ages, and many are written with the Dyslexie font that is helpful for children with dyslexia.
The books vary in design, but they generally provide prompts for students to research topics rather than present instructional information. Most of the books ask questions or give directions then tell students to use other resources for information without listing any particular ones. In spite of its title, even How to Make Money: A Handbook for Teens, Kids & Young Adults primarily uses questions as prompts to get the reader to think about different issues or steps they need to take to be able to make money.
Some of the books for preschoolers and kindergartners differ since young children are not yet able to read, research, and write like older children. For example, My First Fun-Schooling Math Workbook includes activities for learning to read and write numbers, spell the words for numbers, count up to 30, recognize shapes, and learn the days of the week and months of the year. It also has mazes and games. No research required!
Most of the books will serve best as supplements, and I think they will be particularly useful for those using a unit study or living books approach. If your children are learning primarily from reading books or being read to (from historical novels, information books, books on science topics, etc.), The Thinking Tree books can help you cement that learning with research, writing, and drawing activities. They will also work as supplements to other educational approaches.
I’ll focus on two of The Thinking Tree books to give you a better idea of how they work.
Seaside Science: Curiosity Journal
Seaside Science: Curiosity Journal is a secular book with no mention of either creation or evolution. This book is especially great for vacations at the beach, for those living close to the beach, or for kids who just love the ocean.
In the beginning of this 232-page book, there are pages for listing other related books you use and documentaries you watch. Many pages include prompts with ocean-related topics to look up then write about or draw. Often the journaling pages direct the student to go outside for a nature walk and draw certain animals or flowers from seaside areas. There are also many pictures or drawings of plants and animals from seaside areas to research and either color or draw. If you aren’t by the beach, students can use books or other resources for their observations. Seaside Science includes many pages for adding the student’s own photos, artwork, and nature walk findings. A few activities stretch into critical thinking. For instance, one activity has two photos of different beaches in two opposite parts of the world. The student is asked to study and compare the beaches, then is given space to share his or her research. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what a flower looks like without the color, but also it gives the student a chance to research and color it, which is how some of the prompts are given. A student can literally add color to every page of this book as well as the cover.
Time Travel World History: Heroes & Villains of History
Time Travel World History: Heroes & Villains of History is a 211-page book recommended for ages ten and up. It covers 50 people such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Julius Caesar, Charles Martel, Osama Ben Laden, Josef Mengele, Rosa Parks, Charles Darwin, Joseph Stalin, and Michael Jackson. Mother Teresa is also on the list along with a number of Protestant missionaries such as Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, and Lottie Moon. But you can easily cross out any of these and substitute other people since each of them has a nearly identical set of questions and activities. The name shows up only at the top of the first of four pages, and the pronouns are changed for men and women.
There is space on the four pages for students to draw a picture or paste in an image, but most of the space is taken up with questions with lines for students to fill in with their answers from their research. The first question asks students to guess whether the person is a hero or villain and why. Then they research questions such as: “What were his goals?”, “What did he actually accomplish?”, and “In what ways did his life affect our world?” Other questions ask about their families and their beliefs. There is also space for students to write a random fact and a quote. On the fourth page, students write a short “autobiography” as if they were this person, and a final question asks students to re-evaluate whether the person was a hero or a villain.
You can use whatever resources you choose as reference material. There are a few pages at the back where you can keep a record of resources if you wish to. The quality of learning this way will vary depending upon the resources and the depth of research students invest. But it can be an excellent way to learn, especially if students are able to find research presenting both positive and negative views of a person.
Unlike many of the Thinking Tree journals, this one does not have pre-drawn pictures for students to color in, although they do have space to create their own.
Those using just about every style of homeschooling can benefit from The Thinking Tree journaling books. They provide plenty of opportunities for students to research and learn either independently or alongside parents. And if you have artistic learners who enjoy researching and recording their research in drawing, lists, photos, etc., they will probably love these books.
(Reviewed by Cathy Duffy and Nikki Farmer.)