Campfire Curriculums offers a collection of unit studies based on Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. They were created for the family to use together, and to make this work, each unit offers differentiated activities for three age levels and various learning styles.
The open-and-go design of Campfire Curriculums makes it easy for dads to be involved, a fact that the publisher highly recommends. In fact, they say, “It is our stated goal to have fathers lead this unit study with their families, where applicable.”
These unit studies are unique in that most focus on professions, hobbies, or avocations. Specialists in each topic are the sources for much of the content. The publisher explains: “We do the in-person interviewing, the hands-on job or skill shadowing; we ask the professionals, learn their secrets, and cover the expense to get inside the minds of experts before we develop the units.” The following regular units are available thus far:
- In the Steps of the Titanic
- In the Steps of the U.S. Military
- With the Skills of Natural Medicine
- With the Skills of a Camper
- With the Skills of Home Defense
- With the Skills of a Gardener
- Through the Eyes of a Storm Chaser & Meteorologist
- Through the Eyes of ER Life (Emergency)
- Through the Eyes of a Volcanologist
- Through the Eyes of a Professional Chef
- Through the Eyes of a Veterinarian
Holiday unit studies are available, but they can only be purchased in the appropriate seasons. These are:
- In the Season of Resurrection Day
- In the Season of Christmas
- In the Season of Thanksgiving
- In the Season of Giving Thanks (overlaps with Thanksgiving, but emphasizes the fall season and gratitude)
Mini units half the size of regular units are also available:
- In the Steps of Pirates of the Caribbean
- With the Skills of a Beekeeper
- With the Skills of a Photographer
- In the Season of Independence Day
- In the Season of Valentine’s Day
Future units are in the works for the topics of zoology, car maintenance, historiography (the work of historians), paleontology, living off the land, and U.S. Special Operations. New units are released at the rate of about one every two months.
Many of the topics are unusual, and I found the units that I examined very interesting, often containing information new to me. There’s an adventurous spirit behind these studies as you might have guessed from titles involving storm chasing, the military, and volcanoes. Developing self-sufficiency is another recurring theme in some of the studies. Also, all Campfire units are written from a non-denominational Christian viewpoint. They include Faith Talk sections in every lesson, and Christian references are scattered throughout the curriculum—with more or less Christian content depending on the topic.
When you purchase a unit, you get a collection of PDF files that usually includes three levels of the Guidebook, identified as Advanced Guidebook (for high school through adults), Growing Guidebook (for elementary and middle school students), and Early Learner Guidebook (for young children up to first grade). A fourth file, Core Connections, provides instructional information, activities, and assignments for history/social studies, science, and language arts. You can give each family member the Guidebook for their level. (Note that there is no Early Learner Guidebook for In the Steps of the U.S. Military.) A few of the unit studies that were first published have a slightly different assortment of files (e.g., journals for elementary, middle school, high school, and adults rather than three Guidebooks) and do not include Core Connections.
There are no separate teacher guides. Parents work from the Advanced Guidebook. The Advanced and Growing Guidebooks differ in that some sensitive content has been left out of the Growing Guidebook, and simpler explanations are sometimes added. The Early Learner Guidebooks are entirely different since they provide age-appropriate activities for younger children related to the topics covered in the Advanced and Growing Guidebooks. They have at least one hands-on activity per lesson.
While the Early Learner Guidebook has many pages that need to be printed (usually in color), the other Guidebooks can be used digitally. Students using the Growing and Advanced Guidebooks will write in a notebook or on a computer.
How It Works
There are 12 lessons per unit study. I will concentrate on how lessons for Advanced and Growing levels work since the activities for Early Learners are presented as adjuncts to those in the other Guidebooks. The Advanced and Growing Guidebooks use color-coded fonts to identify information used for different levels or that is optional. Parents might want to adapt the information even further for children below fourth grade.
Campfire unit studies are intended to be used by a family rather than for independent study since discussions and activities play a vital part. On the other hand, everyone in the family won’t do every activity. You can often choose from the activities those that are best for your family and your individual children.
Each lesson begins with information presented in a living book format—like conversations or storytelling rather than a textbook. This part of the lesson is intended to be read aloud and should take only 10 to 15 minutes. This section sometimes includes links to Campfire Curriculums’ website where they maintain links to some great videos and online instructions for some of the activities. The website also has supply lists for the activities, the scope and sequence for each unit study, and lists of recommended books for each of the three levels. While none of the recommended books are required, they provide an easy way to expand learning in a Charlotte Mason fashion.
Next in the lesson are two discussion activities: Faith Talk and Think Tank. Faith Talk makes a connection from the lesson to biblical principles or verses. Think Tank raises problematic ethical issues and personal applications that are likely to provoke great discussions. The Guidebooks say that together these should take about 10 minutes.
Optional activities, games, or crafts follow the Faith Talk and Think Tank. These range from very simple to very involved, and it’s up to you to choose activities best for your situation and the learning styles of your children.
The next section, labeled “Potential SYW (Skip if You Want),” has additional information to read. Students who want to learn more can use this material, but it’s not required.
The Core Connections material (which I will describe shortly) is also optional, and it would be used after the activities and Potential SYW.
Scattered within the lessons are “Cool Teacher Moments,” which are simple experiments, demonstrations, or activities designed to grab the interest of students. These, too, are optional.
You usually shouldn’t try to complete an entire lesson in one day. You are encouraged to stop whenever you wish and pick up at that point in your next session. The timing will depend upon whether you are using a study as your core curriculum or as a supplement.
The Core Connection file for each unit study has at least one learning activity for science, language arts, and history/social studies/geography for each of the 12 lessons. If a Guidebook concentrates heavily on a particular subject area, then activities for that subject are omitted in the Core Connections. For instance, the meteorology study does not have science activities in the Core Connections since it's covered heavily in the Guidebooks.
Core Connections include information, assignments, and activities. The information is presented in a very engaging fashion with stories, thought-provoking questions, and fascinating facts. Instead of completing worksheets, students respond with discussion, research, writing, projects, and presentations (including public speaking). In some unit studies, the activities predominantly involve reading and writing, while others include a greater variety of activities for different learning styles (e.g., videos, experiments, projects). The activities and experiments often require household items and things easy to obtain, but it lets you know at the beginning of the unit if you’ll need to acquire unusual items.
For language arts, each unit study focuses primarily on one or a few areas. For instance, the primary focus of Through the Eyes of a Storm Chaser and Meteorologist is public speaking. In the Season of Independence Day, literature-based writing, grammar, and copywork all receive attention. And Through the Eyes of a Volcanologist teaches how to write a persuasive essay.
Sections of the lessons in Core Connections are identified for elementary, middle school, and high school students. There are sometimes additional adaptation suggestions for younger students, such as having them dictate rather than write out an assignment if the writing is too much for them.
Campfire Curriculums says that using the Core Connection activities in conjunction with the corresponding Guidebooks should provide coverage of almost all your core subjects other than math. Younger students might still need reading programs, handwriting, and other sequential instruction in language arts. I suspect that parents will occasionally need to focus on particular areas with students beyond the primary grades. For instance, some upper-elementary students will need comprehensive grammar instruction or the development of basic composition skills without waiting for them to show up in Campfire units, and some students will need to cover state history in a particular grade. So even if you use the Core Connections, you might need to add other resources while using Campfire Curriculums as your core program.
If, on the other hand, you choose to use Campfire Curriculums to supplement other core resources, you probably won’t use the Core Connections at all.
The publisher says that to use the units as your core curriculum, you should complete nine or ten Campfire Curriculums units per school year for students in grades two through twelve. High school students can acquire one credit each for history (plus geography and social studies), science, and language arts, plus a half credit each for electives and Bible. High schoolers will need to complete all SYW pages, Core Connections, and other extension activities, and you need to ensure that they are putting in sufficient time—sometimes specified by states as 120 to 180 hours of work in each subject. (Reading some of the recommended books might be a good way to easily increase the number of hours.) If you use just one or a few units as high school electives, it is simplest to grant one-quarter credit per unit rather than try to attribute credit toward core subjects.
Keep in mind that there are sufficient Campfire unit studies available for a year and a half, as I write this review, so it remains to be seen how comprehensive the coverage of the core subjects will be if used over several years.
Campfire Curriculums offer unusual topics in a format that allows the whole family, including dads, to learn together. It should be easiest to use only the Guidebooks, supplementing your core curricula. However, using the Core Connections offers an unusual way to turn the study into your core curriculum even though it’s too early in the development of the program to determine how well that will work. You can check out their free samples (six lessons from two units) by subscribing to their free newsletter, or just start with a mini unit to see if it works for your family.