Combining Thematic Units and Literature
By Carolyn Tomlin

For preschool children, a happy encounter with books is one of the most important experiences in early education. Enjoying the pleasures of literature introduces the child to pre-reading and success in learning. Hopefully, this acquaintance with books started in the home, and your program will only be a follow-up and expansion of literature. Unfortunately for some children, the classroom experiences you provide may be their initiation into the wonderful world of literature and reading. 

To put more literature into your day, integrate your curriculum around important themes. Link together the concepts of language arts, science, math, social studies, art, and music. Throw in a variety of activity books and other learning materials. Use some of the following ideas to get you started. Then, take those beloved “read again” books and develop your own units.


Unit #1 – I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

Can the solution prove worse than the predicament? Yes, if it’s about an old woman who swallowed a fly. Young children will delight in this cumulative rhyme while having fun learning.


Literacy: Rhyming Words

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is filled with rhyming words. Explain to the children that rhyming words sound alike. For example, dog and hog, pot and hot, and cat and hat rhyme.           

First, read the book. Then, go back and find rhyming words on each page. Read a sentence, pause and allow children to supply the correct word. Reading comprehension, auditory perception and confidence for learning are only a few of the skills you teach.


Math: Smallest to Largest

After reading the book, ask the children to list the things the old lady ate. Next, ask them to put them in order from the smallest (the fly) to the largest (the horse). Have the children put other objects, such as toys or stuffed animals, in order from smallest to largest of from largest to smallest.


Art: Scenes from the Story

After hearing the story, provide sheets of 8½” x 11” paper and colored markers. Assign children different scenes of the story. Guide the children to place the scenes on a bulletin board in the same sequence as in the story.


Special Event: “Nonsense Day”

Children love to dress up and wear silly clothes. Send a note home to parents about having their children come to school dressed in silly clothes. Suggest that the children wear funny clothes, mismatched shoes and socks, strange hairstyles, and other unusual attire.


Creative Thinking

Encourage preschoolers to think in creative ways. Ask the children, “What other things could the old lady have swallowed? Could she have swallowed a frog that hopped around in her stomach? What about a fish that kept saying, ‘I want out!’” Using a large sheet of paper invite the children to think of different animals that the old lady could have swallowed.


Science: Animal Identification

Collect pictures of animals in the story. Display on a bulletin board and write the animal’s name under each. Talk about what each animal eats and their natural habitat.


Social Studies: City or Country?

Show the pictures in the storybook. Discuss the pictures with the children by asking, “Are these pictures of the city of country? How can you tell?” Talk about where the children live. Do they live in the city or in the country?


Cooking: Vegetable Soup

Can you think of something better to eat than what the old lady ate? What about a cup of vegetable soup? Ask the children to bring in one of the following: green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, carrots, beef broth and chicken broth. Slice up the vegetables and turn them into a yummy vegetable soup.


Music: Echoing

Explain to the children that by echoing, they listen for words the teacher says, then repeat the words. Ask another teacher to help you – your children may not understand the “wait” time. Sing the words as you say a sentence, then have the children repeat by singing the same words.


Unit #2 – Baa, Baa Black Sheep

Children will enjoy hearing and reciting the nursery rhyme, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and the thematic activities that follow. 

Literacy: Clapping is an excellent way to teach rhythm and develop listening skills. Read “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” to the children and ask them to clap as they hear each syllable. Say a line, clap the syllables, and ask the children to repeat.  

Science: Locate a picture of a mature sheep showing a thick coat of wool. Explain that sheep grow wool on their bodies like people grow hair. In the spring, the wool is clipped from the sheep. This process does not hurt the animal, but it does make them cooler in the warm weather. The wool is processed and made into yarn. Yarn is woven into wool cloth. Wool is a fabric that keeps people warm in cold weather. Bring some items to the school that are made from wool for the children to see. Draw a diagram showing the process of using wool, or try to visit a farm where they raise and shear sheep.

Music: Sing the nursery rhyme. Then encourage the children to substitute different words for the animal, the number of bags and whom they are for. For example, “Moo, moo white cow, have you any milk?” The sillier, the better! 

Art: Check with a fabric store for a small piece of black woolen fabric. Cut small ovals for each child. Have the children glue the ovals to construction paper. Encourage them to add a head, legs, and tail. Draw a barn nearby with a fence surrounding the barn. Have the children write or dictate a sentence about their drawing.


Unit #3 – Seeds 

Question: What is an object usually discarded, inexpensive, yet offers dozens of ideas for teaching?  

The answer: a seed. Seeds offer a multitude of learning opportunities for science, math, language, and other subject areas. To begin a unit on seeds, you might want to read one or all of the following books:  

  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss
  • The Acorn Tree and Other Folktales, retold and illustrated by Anne Rockwell
  • Anne’s Magic Seeds by Mitsumasa Anno
  • The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall


Animal Like Seeds

Peach Turtle: Save peach seeds over a period of time or slice the fruit from the seed and allow to dry. Pinch small bits of clay to form a tail, head and legs and attach to the seed, which becomes a turtle shell. 

Locust Worms and Snakes: Dried seed pods from the honey locust tree become worms and snakes with a bit of imagination. The 12-inch twisted forms and shapes bring out the creativity in children. Have the children paint them with tempera paint, adding spotted or striped patterns. Don’t forget to add wiggly eyes.   

Prune Fish: Cook prunes and remove pulp. Give each child a sheet of paper and encourage him to draw an ocean or lake scene. Have them glue the clean prune seeds in the water to resemble fish. Add fins and eyes with a felt tip marker.


Seeds to Eat

Bean Soup: Read the classic children’s story, Stone Soup by Ann McGovern and illustrated by Marcia Brown. Soak dried beans overnight in the refrigerator. Place in a slow cooker until tender. Add a can of beef broth, salt and pepper for flavor. Help children serve the beans in small cups.


Barley, Oats and Wheat

Read the nursery rhyme, “Peas Porridge Hot.” Provide samples of barley, oats, and wheat for the children to touch and feel. Bake a loaf of bread using these grains. Allow children to taste a warm piece spread with butter. Bring in cereal boxes and check the grain used in several types.


Peanut Butter

To make peanut better, place salted peanuts in a blender or grinder. Spread on crackers and enjoy.



Popcorn is a seed that teaches the five senses. Listen to the sound of popping corn, smell the aroma, see the kernels pop by using a glass or plastic top (adult use only), touch the funny shapes, and taste the finished product.


Seeds For Games

Guess the Number

Fill a small jar of unshelled peanuts. Ask the children to estimate how many peanuts are in the jar. Write each child’s estimate. Empty the jar and count the number. Whose predictions was the most accurate?


Grapefruit Seed Count

Cut grapefruit in halves. Remove the seeds from each half and compare. Does each half have the same amount? Is the total of seeds the same or different for all the grapefruit?


Seed Crafts

Printmaking Seeds

Choose mature cucumbers or squash and slice into circles. Dip one side into tempera paint. Stamp on paper for unusual designs.


Seed Cone Collection

Collect natural cones that grow in your area, such as pines, spruces, hemlock, and fir. Place in basket for observation. If gathered when moist, the cones are closed. When they dry out, the cones release their seeds.


Seeds That Feed Animals

Corn Treat

Using a piece of wire, secure an ear of dried corn to a tree limb. Choose a location near a window where children can observe the squirrels and birds that feast on the treat.


Suet Feeder

Select a dry pinecone that is open. Dip the cone in suet (lard or fat that has been melted and hardened). Roll in birdfeed and hang near a winder for observation. Count the number of birds that come to the feeder. Check a bird book for identification.


Carolyn R. Tomlin has taught Early Childhood Education at Union University. She writes for numerous educational publications.