PS/IS 686 | Brooklyn, NY

Gr 5 Humanities: How Does Geography Determine Culture?

We have just completed our Geography in the Western Hemisphere unit! The unit addressed the relationships between culture and the physical environment. Culture has arisen and evolved in a great variety of physical settings that differ in climate, natural vegetation, soils, and landforms. In these diverse natural environments, humans developed adaptive strategies to satisfy their needs for clothing, food, and shelter. The result is a literal world of difference in clothing styles and the materials from which they are made; the production, preparation, and consumption of foods; and the architectural styles and materials that define human shelter. The variety of physical settings that characterize our planet, and the amazing variety of human adaptive strategies to them, go a long way to explain why there are so many cultures on Earth today.

The idea that culture is determined by environment often helps us better understand the cultural landscape. Therefore, while a cultural landscape study might identify and describe a building that typifies a specific area, 5th graders will also be able to explain why that building looks the way it does. The Taos Pueblo, a large adobe structure that is a quintessential element of the cultural landscape of the American Southwest, provides a good example. In the pueblo’s immediate physical setting, scant rainfall results in scant vegetation. Trees are few, except along permanent watercourses and in high mountains. Also, the low humidity contributes to uncomfortably warm daytime temperatures that contrast with uncomfortably cold nights during much of the year.

The pueblo demonstrated several adaptations to these conditions. It consists of finished mud brick (for which the raw material is locally abundant) over a skimpy lattice of timber. The design produces an amalgam of box-like attached residences, a feature that limits the walls that are exposed to the hot sun and leaves flat rooftops, which may act as catchments for scarce rainfall. Also, the largely windowless thick walls help regulate temperature within by heating up slowly during the day, keeping rooms cool in the face of afternoon heat. In contrast, when the sun goes down and the air turns cold, the heat that built up in the adobe during the day keeps the interior significantly warmer than the nighttime air.

Avoiding cultural stereotypes is one of the most important goals of this unit. Cultural stereotyping often involves particular peoples’ clothing, food, and/or shelter, which are prominent aspects of cultural ecology. Thus, unless otherwise informed, a student might look at the pueblo and conclude that all Native Americans in the southwestern U.S. reside in something that looks like it. In reality, the Taos Pueblo is merely a remnant traditional structure. Most of the local people live in more modern-looking homes made of modern construction materials.


Sadly, there is an abundance of literature available to students that reinforces or creates cultural stereotypes. I recently came across a picture book for U.S. elementary school students claiming to show how children live in other lands. It was a collection of stereotypes. For example, “Eskimos” (nowadays more properly called “Inuits”) were dressed in animal skins, carried spears, lived in igloos, had dog sleds parked outside, and entertained themselves by using walrus skins to toss each other around. In reality, contemporary Inuits are just as likely (perhaps more so) to order outerwear from L.L. Bean, use a snowmobile, hunt with a modern high-power rifle (if, indeed, they are inclined to go hunting), live in housing made of modern construction materials rather than ice blocks, and spend their leisure time watching TV.

Most cultural stereotyping rests on the idea that certain people live pretty much as did their distant ancestors. The 5th graders have learned that although there are many people alive today—especially in some developing countries—who continue to exhibit cultural characteristics little changed from those of distant ancestors, the majority of the world’s cultural communities are now experiencing significant modernization. As a result, people who live in distant cultural communities do not all look the same. Instead, different people display old and new cultural characteristics.

What’s Next?

This week, the 5th grade began a unit on European Exploration. Students will look at the profound impact European exploration made on Native Americans and how it eventually led to the transatlantic slave trade. A blog post related to this unit will be up next month.