How Does Where You Live Shape How You Live?

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Time required: 2 periods

Age level: grades 5 - 9

This activity challenges students to think about ways in which people conceive of and modify their physical environment.

All societies begin with the resources they have available. If the society does not engage in trade to obtain other resources, their environment will shape the choices they make. This is not to say, however, that all societies with the same resources will make the same choices. There is variation, even within the same environmental zone, which can only be accounted for by cultural traditions. Not all traders transformed desert regions into centers of world trade as the Nabataeans did. However, it is important to think about the choices a society might make if trade were not available to them.


  • 1 or 2 photographs from magazines or Web sites that depict a number of different environments (e.g. desert, woodlands, tropical rainforest)
  • 3 to 4 photographs that show additional details about each of the environments (e.g. animals, plants, terrain)
  • Library and/or Internet access


Begin with a discussion in which students think about the resources they use in their daily lives that come from their immediate environment. You might ask what would they eat if they had to get all their food from locally grown sources? Would that even be possible today? Or to think about what they might find at a greenmarket or roadside stand in July as opposed to November.

Ask students to pretend they're 500 years back in time. Distribute each set of photographs to a group of 3-4 students. Ask them to identify and research the ecosystem. What kinds of natural resources are available? What might be in short supply, or overabundant, a positive factor or a challenge?

Imagining themselves as the photographers, what might they have heard or sensed or felt when the picture was taken?

Ask students to answer the following questions, based on information from their research and the photos, and assuming that no additional resources were available.

  • What would you use for shelter? For food? For tools? For clothing?
  • How might your environment influence social structure and belief systems?
  • Given that people attribute divine attributes to natural phenomena, what shapes and skills might your gods assume

Trade and ideas borrowed from neighboring groups can influence how people live within their environment. So while the students are looking at what they could do if they only had resources from their immediate environment, they might also think about how neighboring environments could expand their range of options.

The ancient culture of the Nabataeans, is an rich example of how a culture adopted and adapted practices and ideas from neighboring cultures and transformed from nomadic pastoralists to a complex society.

Each group of students should share their work with the rest of the class, presenting the images of their ecosystem and explaining their answers. Afterwards, encourage the class to bring up any additional ideas about how these various environments might affect the way people live in them.

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