explore the desert unit study for elementary homeschool

Explore the Desert: Elementary Homeschool Unit Study

By: Knowledge Crates

Hi everyone! Elizabeth from Team Knowledge Crates here, excited to tell you allll about our Explore the Desert Elementary Unit Study Crate. This desert unit is all about the desert biome and the super cool plants and animals that live there!

Some background on me so you can know where I'm coming from...

In addition to working in curriculum development here at Knowledge Crates, I homeschool my second-grade son and preschool daughter. Our homeschool style is a mix of open-and-go kitchen table curriculum (we use The Good and the Beautiful for math and language arts) and a piece-it-together, follow-our-interests, zillllllions-of-library-books approach to science, social studies, art, and nature study.

photo of the author

I have a bachelor's and master's in education, taught in public schools for 9 years, and have now been homeschooling for 5 years. I LOVE Knowledge Crates because of how easy they make it for me to homeschool in the style that works for our family. With a Knowledge Crate and a library card, we're off to the races!

We did this desert unit study this spring to wrap up our science and social studies curriculum. This was the end of my son's second grade year and my daughter's last year of preschool. I found this desert unit study really easy to adapt for both of their ages and abilities—it made for a great family-style learning experience!

First up, who is this Explore the Desert Unit for?

This Desert Unit Study Is For:

Elementary homeschool (best fit 1st5th grade)

Younger siblings can join in on the fun of the sensory play and arts and crafts activities.

Remember that best fit is just as much about interest as age ... middle school-aged animal aficionados and artsy kids will find plenty to love in this desert unit study, too!

This Desert Unit Study Covers:

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

Language Arts

Social Studies

Environment & Ecology

Arts & Crafts

Sensory Play

This Desert Unit Study Crate Includes:

Deserts by Gail Gibbons (nonfiction picture book)

Desert Biomes Around the World by M. M. Eboch (nonfiction early chapter book)

Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert by Tim Flannery (really cool animal fact book—my son LOVED this book)

The Secret Explorers and the Desert Disappearance by SJ King (chapter book from DK Books)

Can You Survive Dangerous Desert Encounters? by Matt Doeden (choose your own adventure chapter book)

Printed Activity Guide with instructions for over 20 activities spanning STEM, art, sensory play, language arts, and more ... keep scrolling to see!

All the materials necessary (except for water and an egg) to complete the 20+ activities in the guide 

Explore the Desert Unit Study Activity Guide

The Explore the Desert Elementary Homeschool Unit Study comes with this fantastic activity guide that's got all of the activities listed with instructions, materials (all of which are also included in the crate), learning areas, and questions to ask your child to foster critical thinking and connection to the topics.

The first thing I do when I get a homeschool elementary unit study crate is take out this guide and make a rough plan of how I'll spread out the activities for our unit. When I decided to do this desert unit, we had about seven weeks of school left, so I planned for six weeks to have that extra one as a buffer.

Our Weekly Plan for this Desert Unit Study

Before I show you how I planned out this desert unit, please remember this is just how WE did it. There's no "right" pace; it really depends on what kind of pace and rhythm you have in your homeschool. This is just one possible way to do it, my friends!

Desert Unit Week 1: Welcome to the Desert

  • Create our own "deserts of the world" map (multi-step/day process)
  • Prep our desert unit project poster we'll work on throughout the unit
  • Use watercolor + salt technique to make a desert definition card

Desert Unit Week 2: Incredible Cacti

  • Cactus sponge experiment
  • Quilled paper cactus art
  • Folded paper cactus flower
  • Torn paper facts about human, plant, and animal adaptations to the desert

Desert Unit Week 3: Desert Animals

  • 3D scorpion puzzle
  • Snake egg experiment
  • Scratch art desert animal + plant life

Desert Unit Week 4: Even More Desert Animals!

  • Desert sensory play
  • Clay desert animal sculpting
  • Cardboard tube armadillo project
  • Camel mixed media collage

Desert Unit Week 5: Secret Explorers Book Club

  • Read The Secret Explorers and the Desert Disappearance either as independent reading or a family read-aloud
  • Make a story cube about The Secret Explorers

Desert Unit Week 6: Create Your Own Desert Adventure

  • Read Can You Survive Dangerous Desert Encounters? trying a bunch of different choices and endings
  • Write and illustrate our own choose your own adventure story based in the desert
Desert Unit Animal Close Up

Throughout those six weeks, we read all the books that came in the desert unit study crate (it even suggests in the guide which books/chapters to read with each activity). We also got some more books from the library and looked for cool PBS Kids shows with desert themes, too.

The other great thing about the Activity Guide for this elementary homeschool desert unit is that it's written to be used by both the parents and the kids, so if you've got an independent learner who wants to do a certain activity on their own, they can just use the guide and off they go!

Now let's take a look at all of this in action! My kids and I spread this desert unit study over 6 weeks, but of course, you can take whatever pace works for you. 

Desert Unit Study Week 1: Welcome to the Desert

We kicked off our desert unit study with the books Desert Biomes Around the World and Gail Gibbons' Deserts. We read them throughout the week to get a good handle on what exactly a desert is and where they are found around the world

Our main project this week was to create a world map showing the deserts of the world. This map will serve as the centerpiece of our desert unit project, which I'll share more about later.

The Explore the Desert unit study crate comes with a printed outline map on nice quality paper. Here's how we went about creating our deserts of the world map, but you can do it however works for your schedule!

Monday: Using the books as reference, my son outlined the deserts of the world on his map with a pencil. Then he used watercolor paints to fill the oceans in blue, the desert areas light brown, and the rest of the landmasses green. We left Antarctica white.

Tuesday: My son labeled the continents and the oceans. This was an annoying task for him 😂, so we did this in a few sittings throughout the day. 

Wednesday: Next, he used a glue stick and sand (included in the desert unit crate) to add some sand over the desert areas. This simple detail really made the map look SO cool! For Antarctica, we mixed up some table salt and white glitter and used that instead of the sand.

Deserts of the World Poster Painting and Sand

Thursday: My son labeled the deserts with these super cute little flags on toothpicks (included in the desert unit study crate)! There are a lot of deserts in the world, so we just picked some of the major ones. 

Adding Desert Flags to Deserts of the World Poster

Ta-da! This map looks SO great in person. I was so happy with the geography practice and map labeling skills we got in, and the twist of using paints, sand, and the little flags made it fun for him.

Best part for me? All the supplies came in the desert unit study crate!

Finished Deserts of the World Map

On Friday of this first week, we prepped our desert unit project poster. The desert unit study crate comes with a sheet of poster board that serves as a hub for compiling all of the work we did throughout this desert unit. You'll see a picture of it at the end of this post! On this day, we simply glued our finished map to the middle of the poster board (we put a layer of cardboard between to give it some lift).

The last thing we did this week was write the definition of a desert on an index card.

My son painted the card with watercolors and sprinkled salt on the wet paint (the salt technique, makes a really cool pattern!). Once it was dry and we brushed off the sand, he wrote the definition of a desert in his own words (we talked it out first). Then he glued it to the desert unit project poster.

Desert Definition Card

Desert Unit Study Week 2: Incredible Cacti

Our second week of this desert unit study was all about cacti. We started by reading a chapter from Desert Biomes Around the World about desert plant life and then doing this cool cactus sponge experiment.

The desert unit study crate came with a super flat, compressed sponge (about as thick as the cover of a hardcover book). First, we used a pencil to make the shape of a saguaro cactus and then cut it out of the flat sponge. Then we put our cacti in a dish and slowly poured some water in the bottom. 

The kids were DELIGHTED to see their cacti expand as they absorbed the water. They just loved watching it creep up to the top of their cacti! This was a great chance to go back to what we learned in the books and talk about how some cacti expand in shape as they drink up the precious water, and then "deflate" again as it gets used up before the next rainfall.

Growing Sponge Cactus Experiment

For the next phase of this experiment, we waited for the sponges to be totally wet and then dumped out any excess water in the bottom of the bowls. Next, we wrapped one of the cacti in wax paper to act as the waxy skin that saguaro cacti have to seal in moisture.

With one sponge wrapped and the other unwrapped, we left our cacti for 24 hours to see how each cactus would react to being in the "desert" with no more rainfall. We unwrapped the cactus that had the wax paper and touched them to see the difference. The one with the waxy "skin" retained a lot more moisture!

checking cactus after wax paper wrap overnight

Our next activity during cactus week was making a quilled paper cactus. 🌵 We'd never done paper quilling before, and I wasn't sure if the kids would find it too challenging, but they did great!

First we painted a background with watercolors and drew the shape of a cactus lightly with a pencil.

Prepping Background for Quilled Paper Cactus Art

Next I cut strips of green construction paper about 1/4 inch wide. For our quilling "tool", we just used the scratch art sticks that come in the desert unit study crate for another activity. The kids wrapped the paper strips around the sticks, used a dot of tacky glue to keep the coil from coming undone, then filled in their cactus shapes gluing the coils down.

Quilling Strips for Quilled Cactus Art

We finished this project over two days because it took quite a lot of quilling to fill it in the cactus shape. You might want to do this project while listening to an audiobook or podcast together or watching a movie to spice it up!

Finished Quilled Paper Cactus

To add to our desert unit project poster, we also made these cute folded paper cacti!

Folded Paper Cactus Art

We closed out the week by reading about how animals and humans adapt to living in the desert. We tore pieces of colorful construction paper and my son had to use each one to write a fact about desert adaptations. Then he glued those to his desert unit project poster.

Torn Paper Facts about the Desert

Desert Unit Study Week 3: Desert Animals

We had a lot of fun learning about desert animals through this desert unit! The desert unit study crate comes with an awesome book called Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert: Exploring the World's Incredible Drylands. It's got sections on lots of different desert animals, so every time we did a desert animal project this week, we'd read about that creature first and then dive in.

First was the scorpion! 🦂 My son LOVED this project! The desert unit study crate came with a 3D wooden puzzle of a scorpion. My son had to label all the pieces in the wooden cutout sheets, pop them out, assemble, and paint. This kept him busy and he really enjoyed it! Once it was all done and dry, he played with his scorpion for a few days then decided to attach it to his desert unit project poster. You'll see that later in this post. ☺️

3D scorpion puzzle

After reading about rattlesnakes, we did a "snake egg" experiment where we immersed an egg in vinegar overnight to make the shell "disappear." 

Snake Egg Vinegar Experiment

By dissolving the shell, we were left with a squishy egg. This gave us a chance to talk about the difference between leathery, squishable reptile eggs and hard chicken eggs. 

Snake Egg Vinegar Experiment Results

After talking about our snake egg experiment with a friend, she told us that if we had left it even longer in the vinegar, the egg would have become even more transparent, like we could see the yolk floating inside. See if you can get yours to do that!

We capped off this experiment by describing reptile eggs with five adjectives on an index card and adding the card to our desert unit project poster.

Reptile Egg Adjective Card

This last thing we did this week was draw a bunch of desert plants and animals using these fun rainbow scratch art sheets. (A whole stack of the scratch paper was in the crate). It also came with some sheets of line drawings to use as inspiration. My son used his art to decorate his desert unit project poster.

Scratch Art Desert Animals

Desert Unit Study Week 4: Even More Desert Animals!

There are too many fascinating desert animals to fit into one week, so we spent the next week studying them, too!

We began with sensory play. I set up a desert invitation to play with kinetic sand that came with the desert unit, a Safari Ltd. TOOB of desert animals (some came in the desert unit study crate, others came in the preschool version), and a wooden cactus that the kids painted with watercolors from the crate.

Kinetic Sand and Desert Animals Sensory Play

Next, we pulled a set of modeling clay out of the desert unit study crate and sculpted our own desert animals, using the figurines from our sensory play as inspiration.

Clay Desert Animals

The scratch art stick that we used for scratch art and the paper quilling was also a great tool for this activity!

We left our clay animals to dry out for a few days, then my son glued them to his desert unit project poster.

Clay Desert Animals Close Up

THE ARMADILLO!!!!! He is SO stinking cute!!! We worked together to make this guy out of a cardboard tube. The desert unit study activity guide was SO helpful here. I don't think I could have figured this one out on my own, but it was very simple with the instructions.

cardboard tube armadillo

We closed out this week by making some camel collage art. We used the watercolor palette from the desert unit study crate to paint a sky background, and then we painted sand on a separate sheet of paper which we then cut into dunes. 

Working on Camel Collage Art

The camel and trees are made out of cut up paper bags and construction paper. We drew the camel shape on a piece of paper first, filled him in with our cut paper bags pieces, and then cut the shape out of the paper.

finished camel collage art

Desert Unit Study Week 5: Secret Explorers Book Club

The Secret Explorers and the Desert Disappearance is a chapter book for upper elementary that comes in the desert unit study crate. You can use it as a family read-aloud throughout the desert unit or as independent reading. My son is a pretty fast reader, so I gave it to him the previous week and asked him to have it finished by this one.

By the time we got to this week in our desert unit, our school year was almost over and I was focusing on getting our portfolio together, so all we did for the desert unit this week was the book report project I'm going to show you.

If you're not in a rush like we were, I'd suggest making it a "Secret Explorers Book Club" week instead. Read the book throughout the week as a family, snuggled up on the couch or somewhere comfy outside, with a yummy snack, of course! You can do this project throughout the week or at the end of the week.

reading secret explorers book

So, the project! The desert unit study came with a small white box (like a wedding favor might come in) that we turned into a story cube!

working on secret explorers story cube

While it was still flat, we used each side of the cube to write our "book report" with information about the author and illustrator, setting, characters, and more. Once that was done, we folded it up and used a string to hang it from our desert unit project poster!

finished story cube for secret explorers

Desert Unit Study Week 6: Create Your Own Desert Adventure

For our last week in our exploring the desert unit, we had a blast reading Can You Survive Dangerous Desert Encounters? and creating our own "choose your own adventure" story.

First, I had my son read through the book that came in the desert unit study crate trying a few different choices and seeing how the story ended different based on those choices. It was a gorgeous day outside, so I had him read to me while I weeded the garden! Great way to connect with each while we each did our work. ❤️

Reading Dangerous Desert Encounters Book

Our next step was the write an original choose your own adventure story! I told him this would be a family project because I knew writing a whole story (the actual handwriting of it) would be intimidating to him, plus doing it together is just another great bonding experience. If your kid wants to go solo, then sure, that's awesome, too!

In the desert unit study crate, we got a journal that has lines for writing and blank space for illustration on every page. It also came with a page flow diagram to show us how to set up the different options and results in our book, and a blank story map to plot those out. 

Graphic Organizers for Writing A Choose Your Own Adventure Story

My son and I agreed that we would come up with the story together, I would write it down, and he would illustrate. I told him it had to have something to do with deserts, and he chose to set it in Antarctica (the largest desert on Earth!) because he wanted penguins to be involved. 😂

We sat outside on that nice day, with drinks and snacks, coming up with different problems and choices to arise for our characters and both silly and realistic endings based on various choices. It was really so fun! Then throughout the rest of the week, he worked on illustrations.

Choose Your Own Adventure Original Story Kids Project

Desert Unit Project Poster

I am SO EXCITED to show you my son's finished desert unit project poster! We've never done a project poster before, or really any kind of project that sums up a whole unit of learning. It's so gratifying, for both of us, to see our exploration gathered in one place!

desert unit study project poster

I also wanted to show you our homeschool display corner we have in our office/playroom. This is where we display all of our projects and work throughout a unit. I just love how the corner looks after completing our desert unit!

desert unit study homechool wall

Desert Unit Study Library Booklist

Whenever we do an elementary homeschool unit study, even though the crate comes with fantastic books, we always get a bunch more from the library. GIVE US ALL THE BOOKS!!!

I put together a BIG list of books to go with this desert unit study that you can look up at your library and use throughout the desert unit. There are both picture books and chapter books on the list.

You can get a free printable PDF version of the desert unit booklist here, or head over to the same list on Amazon if that's more convenient for you.

explore the desert library book stack

Explore the Desert Preschool Activities

One of my favorite things about homeschooling as a way of life is the "family style" approach of learning, when the whole crew, littles and big kids, can enjoy exploring a unit together and in their own way

My five-year-old did a bunch of the activities from the elementary desert unit study crate with us, but there's also a full Explore the Desert: Preschool Edition crate that has its own set of 20+ activities about the desert. 

If you've got a preschooler or kindergartener, you'll want this version. We were lucky enough to do both, and if you'd like to do that, too, you can add either of the full crates to your cart, and you'll be prompted to add the other one for a great discount. The more you know! ☺️

My daughter LOVED the cardboard cactus that came in her preschool desert unit crate. She used this awesome set of paint sticks (in the crate) to color the pieces, and then assembled it by herself.

Paint Sticks Cardboard Cactus

Check out this cactus math activity set from Hand2Mind! Yes, this comes in the preschool desert unit crate! The cactus counters are SO cute (my daughter played with them on their own for quite a while), and there are lots of math activities at different levels—counting, sorting by color, patterns, addition, AND subtraction. This math set really is great for even into second grade.

Preschool Cactus Counting Math Activity Set

My daughter's desert unit crate came with her own batch of kinetic sand, more desert figurines from Safari LTD (different ones than were in her brother's desert unit crate, so together they had the full set), and her own wooden cactus to paint.

Desert Sensory Play for Preschool

The preschool desert unit crate also includes gorgeous books, a sun print paper activity, sunscreen art experiment, sandpaper drawings, and lots more. You can see the full activity list over here. 🏜

Suggested Shows and Movies to Explore the Desert

We love it when a unit study leads to a family movie night (or two!). I also get excited when I can find quality TV episodes that are on theme with what we're learning—we may watch one during lunch, or before bed as a family when a full-on movie night isn't in the cards.

Unfortunately, I didn't find any really great desert movies for kids that I'd recommend for this desert unit. (If you know one, let us know!) We watched part of the movie Rango, but I didn't care for some of the adult-geared humor and my kids weren't too into it anyway.

What I'd REALLY recommend in terms of TV for this desert unit is lots and lots of Wild Kratts episodes! There are TONS of episodes that take place in different deserts all around the world. Just search the word "desert" on this Wikipedia episode guide and you'll find them all!

Go Forth and Explore the Desert!

Thank you so much for letting me share all about our experience doing this desert unit study! We truly enjoyed the learning and creating we experienced together throughout this desert unit.  

The ready-to-go resources we used are listed below. I hope you and your kids have as much fun as we did! 🌵🦂🐍

Resources Used In This Unit

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