2.3 : The Big Ideas

It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify art.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?  There are a few big, overarching ideas that can help frame your thinking about photography in general, getting you into a fresh mindset for approaching photography with children - and for yourself!

Photography is a way to communicate ideas and stories.

Like painting, storytelling, and dramatic play, photography is a language for children to both figure out their world and share their ideas.  There are examples of children as photographers that you will look at more closely in the third unit, photography in action.  Here, though, you’ll look at the broader idea of photography, and why it draws us in.

Because we live in a time where digital photography is the norm, we aren’t restricted by film, chemicals, and the related costs.  Photography is cheap and incredibly accessible.  Because of those changes, the general attitude around children using cameras has shifted.  We don’t need to justify the cost anymore - it seems built in.  

Photography is absolutely timeless - it actually seems to be getting more popular, with easier and cheaper access to high quality cameras.  We take photographs of our loved ones, our food, the sunset, ourselves - and we don’t just put them away in shoeboxes anymore - we share a lot of them instantly, either with friends or strangers.  

That helps us frame photography as a BIG IDEA: a timeless language for capturing what is happening in our world.

Big Idea: The camera allows us to see the world through fresh eyes.  

In a photography project with children, Maria Leonida makes this observation:

“A day in a big park with their classmates and the encouragement to observe and take pictures of what they like most triggered the photographer inside them in a very passionate way. As if the tiny digital frame became a new way of seeing the park itself and the life inside it...I believe the question can be about the observation skills that children may develop and the connections they can make about the world around them through photography.” 
 Photo by S, age 3.5

Photo by S, age 3.5

When we, as an adult, take a picture,  we often start to think about whether the picture is “good” or “bad”.  Is everyone’s eyes open?  Are we all smiling?  Is there enough light?

For children, photography is more playful, with the engagement centering around the idea of capturing an image, not the perfection of the image.  Children don’t think about being “good” at photography or “bad” at photography - the experience is as compelling as the product.  Maria Leonida describes the words of Jacques Henri Latrigue, a child photographer in the early 20th century:

“As a spectator I enjoy myself. But suddenly this morning an idea began to dance around in my head, a fairy tale invention thanks to which I will never again be bored or sad: I open my eyes, shut them, open them again, then open them wide and hey presto! I capture the image, everything: the colors! the right size! And what I keep is moving, smelling living life. This morning I took a lot of pictures with my eye-trap.”

An eye trap that captures images, a camera in the brain: these are ways to explain photography when you explore it freely.  Or, at least from the view of a child.  We adults have grown out of that fresh point-of-view, but children still have it; and they can capture that world with a camera.

Big Idea: Photography puts children in the position of “research partner”

There are a lot of ways to gather information about children’s thinking and learning, and to share those stories with parents, families, and the community.  Those fresh views of the world - children’s photographs - can be a fresh view on the work happening in the classroom.  If children are free to have cameras available to them, they can capture goings-on in the classroom and add another perspective to documentation.

In a project on Photography with children in South Africa, Ina Joubert says:


Children as research partners is embedded in ideas from projects like Reggio Children and Project Zero: how do children show their thinking?  How can we illustrate children’s learning?  We can support children as explorers of their world through materials and spaces, and, in turn, we gain a deeper understanding of children’s capabilities and ideas.  Cameras are a perfect tool for gathering children’s perspective, and giving them the a tool for exploration.


The benefits are cyclical:  children take photographs; we are able to observe them at work as photographers.  


When the pictures “come out of the camera”, as one of my former students used to say, we can look at them together, reflect on them together.  


Now we are able to inform next steps and planning with both children’s photographs, and their reflections-on-photographs.



The examples below are from Reflections Nursery in the UK. These are a sampling of some of the small stories we might gather when we gather observations.  Children’s photographs, reflected on with them, emerge as stories that we can share with individual children, or a group; with colleagues, parents, and the community.

Click on the images to enlarge:

Big Idea: Photography, with a camera, is pretty exciting.

Photography is engaging for young children.  Even though some children now have the experience of using a parent’s smartphone to take photographs, or a tablet in the home, there is something about a camera that feels important.  You’ll be learning about sourcing point-and-shoot cameras for the classroom, so that children are learning about a tool and its specific purpose.  

The extending lens, the shutter button, the click: these are subtle things that make cameras exciting.  

Big Idea: A photograph can be realistic or imaginative.

Children have the opportunity to choose what it is as they collect concrete images of their world, and abstract ideas right alongside.  They get to pick the story.  I think about the motion that is captured in children’s images, telling a realistic story in an abstract manner:


And the crisp photographs of things that are important to children in the classroom:


As adults, we usually approach photography in a realistic way, capturing things we want to remember.  Because children experience the act of photography in a different way than us, with more delight and joy i the use of the camera as a tool, the photos they take are wider ranging.  The reflection on photography is an aspect that increases the power of the language in the classroom.