The Role of Culture in Our Relationship to Nature

by Allan Berkowitz, Executive Director
March 2013

A recent academic study explored the role of culture in how children view the environment. The researchers wanted to better understand if culture affects a child’s view of the environment, and if so, in what ways. The study was rather clever. It surveyed children in four different countries, all of whom shared Chinese as their native language. The researchers posited that since all the participants spoke the same language, any prevailing differences could be attributed to cultural influences.

Let’s look at one example from the study of how culture can affect a child’s view of the environment. Children drew pictures of a ‘built environment’ that reflected their understanding of the relationship between natural and man-made environments. In Singapore, the pictures showed housing expanding upward; in the United States the pictures showed buildings expanding outward.  The authors attribute this to differences in culture and land resources in these two countries.

Commenting on this study, the Environmental Education Research Bulletin (Issue 3, Summer 2012) says, “Children’s everyday ideas are greatly influenced by the culture that they experience….educators need to be aware of cultural impacts on children’s views of nature or the environment.”

That comment is very important: “…educators need to be aware of cultural impacts on children’s views of nature or the environment.” At the EV, we are exploring cultural diversity. We recognize that we will be a better organization and deliver better education if we broaden our own tent. At a recent strategic planning retreat, our staff and board engaged in a series of robust conversations about a myriad of ideas, strategies, programs and goals that the organization might embrace in the coming years. The one issue on which there was unanimous agreement is the need to diversify. Visitors to the EcoCenter should see an organization and experience education that acknowledges their cultural perspectives. Students participating in our school programs should experience a degree of comfort and familiarity when we engage with them (as a result, we will accomplish much more educationally with them). Our staff and board can provide better leadership if our ranks are broadened from within.

Perhaps the first step is to diversify our own thinking by realizing that each of us carry two important truths. We each hold perspectives that are valuable and worthy to share with others. And, we each walk around with blinders as a result of our own cultural influences.

I look forward to this journey and I invite you to join us as we travel this path.