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Culture Studies: Finding Balance... and Topics!

In a Montessori primary classroom, culture is a bit of a catch-all.  Areas such as language arts, mathematics, practical life, and sensorial are fairly well defined.  However, topics such as science, history, geography, and fine arts are often lumped together under the culture heading for the 3-6 year old.  It is addressed differently depending on the flavor of Montessori used and the nature of the individual directing the classroom.

Culture is wide open for exploration.  There is a wealth of topics available, and children naturally gravitate towards them.  It can be one of the most exciting aspects to explore with your child.  While having such a large, interesting bucket of options is refreshing, it can also present one major challenge.  It's easy to drown in it.

If you're homeschooling with Montessori, you can find yourself so buried in the fun topics that the critical areas get missed.  Not only that, but as the planner, the options can be overwhelming and lead to an endless lifetime of making cards and searching Pinterest for themed activities.  All the while, the critical aspects within areas like practical life and sensorial get tossed aside.  I know those areas can seem mundane from the adult perspective, but Maria Montessori's research with young children highlights their immense value.  The key is balance.

As someone who wants to do ALL THE SCIENCE, I've had to take a step back and carefully pace our culture adventures.  I certainly am not diminishing the importance of the culture area and all it encompasses.  It's still my favorite, but I had to make sure I was being intentional.  This is where Classical Conversations came in for us.  In a nutshell, it is a classically based homeschool program.  At the earliest level, it offers small snippets of information each week in areas such as history, geography, and fine arts.  You can read more about our experience with Classical Conversations here.

The structure of CC helped me organize my Montessori culture approach.  I began using the weekly topics as focal points.  Now you may be thinking, "I don't want to join a program just to get topics."  You can certainly come up with your own or look for online options, such as this one from The Helpful Garden.  The critical aspect is devising that long-term plan to meet your specific needs. 
Here are the major lessons I've learned:

Look at Culture Holistically
When I first started my Montessori journey, I treated every possible area of study in primary as a separate entity.  This means that at any given point I was trying to prepare presentations for ten or more areas.  Seeing culture as singular simplified the process.  I only had to worry about language, math, sensorial, practical life, and culture.  If you still want to break it down a bit more, aim for geography/history, science, and fine arts.  Then fit everything you'd like to do into one of those buckets, and only tackle one thing per bucket at a time.

Of course, if you want to simplify things even farther, there are approaches that absorb all of culture into other areas such as sensorial and language.  This is commonly seen with AMI.  But that's the beauty of homeschooling; you can make it as simple or complex as you need to be successful and address your priorities.

Cycle Your Offerings
Once you know how you want to define your buckets, decide on a rotation schedule.  For example, we spent the first half of our school year exploring the kingdom of life for science.  We are now moving to geology.  I try to come up with a solid overview, going as wide as possible with the information.  Primary runs a full three years, so there is ample time to cover a range of topics.  Try to get a general idea of what you want to tackle when.  As you develop your long-term plan, be mindful of special events and the time of year.  For example, botany is best explored in the spring/summer and family trips offer great opportunities for geographical studies. 

Give Yourself Planning Time
One of my favorite aspects of CC has been the six weeks on, one week off approach.  Our week long break from new material is meant as a time for review.  I now structure my planning around that schedule for culture work.  I set my shelves immediately before starting a new session.  Then I present something new each week for six weeks.  I don't introduce anything new during the off week.  I still leave the prior work out for that week if my children want to revisit.  We also keep working in other areas such as math or language.  But overall, I focus my efforts on gearing up for the next six weeks of new culture.  It has gone a long way to keep me from getting overwhelmed.

Cross Subjects as Much as Possible
If you were traditionally educated, it's easy to hold on to a false need for subject delineations. Carefully planned lessons can cross many subjects.  For example, exploring a piece of art from Africa can cover fine art, history, and geography.  And in fact, the more subjects blend, the more relevant information often becomes to children.  Life is not segmented.

Keep it Simple in Primary
Always keep in mind that primary students learn differently than elementary students.  A primary student needs to go wide with their learning, not deep.  Their absorbent mind desires to gather as much information as possible.  Covering a wide range of topics will help give them the rich vocabulary experience they need.  It's easy to get carried away and feel the need to explain the "why" behind everything.  But that will come soon enough.  A primary student with a wide breadth of experience will have a much richer foundation to go deep with in elementary.

Set It Down and Walk Away
When it comes to the topics you select, simply present the lesson, and let whatever happens happen.  Maybe your child will be interested in it and return for more.  Or perhaps your child will simply file it away and show no further interest.  Not all lessons land, and there's nothing wrong with that.  The important thing is that they are offered.  Rest assured that if you continue with a comprehensive Montessori elementary approach, all critical topics will be visited again in the future in new and exciting ways.

There is one caveat I want to give in the way of culture topics.  There are some classic lessons from the culture area that you should consider presenting as part of the primary experience.  This includes basic geography, zoology, and botany.  Some of the key lessons include:
  • Landforms
  • Naming and Recognizing Continents
  • Living vs. Non-Living
  • Animals vs. Plants
  • Needs of Plants/Animals
  • Parts of Plants/Animals
  • Basic Classification of Plants/Animals 
I keep geography materials (puzzle maps, globes, continent boxes) available at all times.  I also offer constant access to basic zoology and biology materials (puzzles, three part cards, botany cabinet).  However, I rotate the top half of my science shelves to reflect our current area of study.  I also rotate the art on display.

I hope you find this information on how I plan for culture at the primary level helpful. 

If you are homeschooling, please join me at Montessori Homeschooling.

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This post is part of the 12 Months of Montessori Series.  I am truly honored to be part of this endeavor.  I want to encourage you to visit all the participating blogs to learn more about culture.

DIY Montessori Flag Pin Map | The Kavanaugh Report
Children of the World Activities | Mama’s Happy Hive
Montessori Culture 3-6 Checklist | Study at Home Mama
Cultural Landmarks around the World (Free Printables)   | Christian Montessori Network
Culture Studies: Finding Topics | Grace and Green Pastures

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