How do young children understand the natural world? Most research into this question has focused on urban, white, middle-class American children living near large universities. Even when psychologists include kids from other communities, too often they use experimental procedures originally developed for urban children. Now researchers have developed a methodology for studying rural Native American kids' perspectives on nature and have compared their responses with those of their city-dwelling peers. The findings offer some rare cross-cultural insight into early childhood environmental education.

Sandra Waxman, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University, and her colleagues have long collaborated with the Menominee, a Native American nation in Wisconsin. When the researchers presented plans for their study to tribe members who were trained research assistants, the assistants protested that the experiment—which involved watching children play with toy animals—was not culturally appropriate. It does not make sense to the Menominee to think of animals as divorced from their ecological contexts, Waxman says.

Instead one of the Menominee researchers constructed a diorama that included realistic trees, grass and rocks, as well as the original toy animals. The researchers watched as three groups of four-year-olds played with the diorama: rural Menominee, as well as Native Americans and other Americans living in Chicago and its suburbs.

All three groups were more likely to enact realistic scenarios with the toy animals than imaginary scenarios. But both groups of Native American kids were more likely to imagine they were the animals rather than give the animals human attributes. And the rural Menominee were especially talkative during the experiment, contrary to previous research that characterized these children as less verbal than their non–Native American peers. The results were published last November in the Journal of Cognition and Development.

“The involvement of tribal communities in all aspects of the research—planning, design, execution, analysis and dissemination—has to be the minimum requirement of all research involving Native people,” says Iowa State University STEM scholars program director Corey Welch, who is a member of the Northern Cheyenne.