One of my day jobs involves working with special needs children and children in hospital. I do a lot of work with children on the autistic spectrum and children with learning difficulties, as well as with at-risk youth and kids with chronic illnesses. One of my absolute favourite things to do is introduce these children to photography. Not only do I enjoy sharing my passion but for a lot of the children I work with it is a unique way for them to express some creativity.
Introducing your children to photography, whether they have extra needs or not, is a great way to encourage creativity and decision-making and can give you a new activity to share with your whole family. But how do you go about introducing children to the camera? Here are a few ideas to get you started (these tips are aimed for children from about 3 to 8 years old):
1. Don’t rush out and buy a new camera for your child’s first attempt. You’ve probably got an old camera somewhere, it doesn’t matter if it’s a film camera or an early digital camera with 2 MP, as long as it works it’ll do. If your child shows interest for more than a week or so then the chances are a new camera just for him will be used and appreciated (check out John’s post for ideas on which camera to buy). If the old camera is lying underneath that never-opened board game and once-used pair of roller blades from last Christmas, then it's probably best to wait a few months and try again. Even if you just use an old camera and end up abandoning the project don’t forget to teach your child how to care for the camera (keep it switched off in it’s case when not in use, don’t touch the lens, use the wrist/neck strap) but don’t freak him out by telling him it’s really expensive and he better be careful. A better idea is not to equip him with a camera you’ll be angry about if it does get damaged.
2. Get back to basics. You might know about f-stop numbers, aperture, and depth of field but your child probably doesn't even know how to hold a camera correctly. Start simple. Show her how to hold the camera so a blurry finger won't appear in every shot. Explain how to open/close the shutter (or use the lens cap if the camera has one) and use the view finder and LCD screen. If your child is under 6 this is probably enough information, any more and they'll tune out and be bored before they start. For older kids a quick explanation of the flash and zoom features can be included.
3. For their first foray into photography just let them go ahead and shoot. This will allow them to get familiar with the camera and also to take photos of the things they think are important (often toys, pets, and their bedroom will feature prominently) rather than things you tell them would look nice in a photo. A digital camera has the advantage of allowing a child to see the photos right away and removes the cost of processing film. But many children enjoy taking the film to a photo lab and then holding real photos in their hands (it often feels more like they’ve created something if they can hold it), so don’t be afraid to try a film camera. If you go with a digital camera put a small memory card in so that they’re limited to 20 or 30 shots (equivalent to one roll of film).
4. When you have plenty of time to sit down with your child, get the photos and look through them with him. Before you say anything remember that photography (like all art) is subjective. Just because it’s not what you would have done doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Try and find something positive to say, even if he’s taken 25 photos of a matchbox car. If he has taken lots of photos of the same thing, as him if he wished he’d had more film/memory so he could photograph some other things too. If the answer is yes it’s a good time to discuss decision-making and using limited resources (don't just hand him a larger memory card, try and encourage him to be selective about what he photographs. Then later if he's taking 25 photos of different things or using different perspectives and still feels he needs more shots you can give him the larger card to work with). And if he says no, at least you know those matchbox cars are really important to him!
5. Get some books or find some child-friendly web sites that showcase photography. Or better yet find a local photography exhibit or gallery and take a trip to see finished, framed photos. Try and look at a variety of different styles with you child and discuss which ones you and she like and dislike. Then discuss some of the different techniques used (tailor the language and detail to your child’s age level and attention span) and point out things like the angle, focus, distance, and framing.
6. Plan a photography outing either as a family, with friends, or just you and your child. You don’t have to go far, the beach, a playground, a hiking trail, or the zoo are all good places to try (although if you choose the beach be wary of cameras and water!). Encourage your child to photograph different things, landscapes, people, animals, and from different perspectives. Set and example yourself by photographing a variety of scenes and getting down on your knees or standing on a bench to try different angles. Most importantly, have fun and don’t forget to let you child share her finished photos with other people (her friends, grandparents, etc).
7. Remember not rush this. If you really want your child to enjoy photography and be able to express himself though it then it needs to be an ongoing process. Trying to cram the whole learning experience into one day isn't going to work. This is something you can re-visit and build on as he grows older and can learn new skills and techniques. And don't forget all kids go through phases so if the camera sits unused for a few weeks or months don't try to force him to use it, instead plan another photography outing for a time when you think he might be ready to try again (try going somewhere you haven't been for a while so he has new things to photograph). Or encourage him to use his previous photos in an art project, or make an album with them, seeing his work might remind him how much fun he had and prompt him to pick up the camera again.