This paper investigates Mexican and New Zealand children's conception of the environment and their understandings of environmental issues, focusing on how personal experiences, culture and school-based environmental education (EE) programmes influence their perspectives. Sixty Year 5 children (age 9-11) from three schools in Dunedin (New Zealand) and three schools from Ensenada (Mexico), their teachers and school principals were interviewed. The study found that children from both cities had limited opportunities for contact with nature. Most children understood the environment as nature, and did not typically link environmental problems to human activities or social causes. Rarely were children critical of the effect of socio-economic structure on the environment. The analysis shows that children's understandings of the environment are connected to their personal experiences and mediated by culture. Children from Ensenada had a more global perspective on environmental issues but a more passive attitude towards their local environment, participating in fewer environmental activities than children from Dunedin. In both countries, children from schools with an EE programme did translate environmental practices learnt at school into environmental practices at home. Based on our results, EE could be improved by considering the cultural context, enhancing children's contact with nature, encouraging critical thinking and more environmental activities.