This paper explores how children in different cultures and socio-economic contexts develop representations about the public sphere. It addresses how contexts of representation shape the form and content of children’s thinking while expressing the two-way transactions between the child and their social world. Drawings by children from two age groups (seven- and 10-year-olds) and two socio-economic milieus (affluent and deprived), in four cultures (Germany, Mexico, Brazil and Romania), supported by observations and interviews, were used to investigate children’s representations of their public world and their position within it. Findings show that public spheres characterised by collectivism, poverty and/or marginalisation: a) accelerate decentration bringing the public world and its complexity to the foreground of children’s depictions, and b) show a strong link between self and the public world. In affluent or individualistic public spheres we recognise the classical developmental pathway proposed by Piaget, with a clear increase in the separation between self and society as children grow. Children’s representations are flexible semiotic systems whose form and content interact productively with the context in which they develop. These results reject conceptions of children’s knowledge as a prototype of adult knowledge, suggesting that children’s societal knowledge evolves through adaptive strategies to specific socio-cultural environments.