By Lupe Tucker
It has been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In today’s digital age, an expressive picture can also communicate to thousands of minds in the blink of an eye, which makes photography exciting, fun, and a fantastic way to teach your child the art of visual communication. Going beyond the simple theme unit, photography is an extremely effective tool that not only will inspire creativity in your children but also can light the fire of discovery and exploration as they use photos to interact with the world around them. A camera allows children to interact with their surroundings in a way that no other electronic gadget can. Take advantage of the opportunity this affords, and take the leap into a new world of discovery with your child!
I remember when I was young and was given my first camera. I took photos of ants, people, landscapes—and through trial and error (and considerable expense) I learned how photography worked. Twenty-five years ago, I had to wait for days to get my photos back. I had to pay for film and processing. Not every shot was a keeper, so I became very cautious about taking photos, because I didn’t want to waste film, money, or time. Today we don’t have to worry about any of those things. Inexpensive and accessible, digital photography gives us the opportunity to use its power of communication to teach every academic subject—a perfect tool for learning.
The best part about photography is that by putting a camera into a child’s hand and letting him use it, ownership of the learning process is instantly established, and your child becomes an integral part of it, not just a passive recipient of information. Having the freedom to take photographs will give your child confidence and cause him to start looking at the world around him in a new way. Children as young as 5 years old can use a digital camera to explore the world around them, and through images share what is interesting to them. By giving children a voice through images, photography awakens the creative senses and helps develop communication skills that can later transfer to language arts proficiency.
If the idea of using a camera in home education is new to you, a good way to begin is by giving your child some brief instruction about taking photographs. This will help your child gain some confidence in using the camera, and it will give you some peace of mind as well. Once the basic functions are mastered, you can show him how to play with different photo angles, how to zoom in and out, and how to practice basic composition skills. Adapt the lesson to the age and attention span of your child; the goal is to make using a camera fun. This way your child will be excited about using it, and that enthusiasm will transfer to the subject matter being taught.
Photography is a personal tool for self-expression, and it is a skill that will be useful for your child’s entire life. Treat each photograph that your child takes with respect, and if you have to delete a photo, explain to her why, so she can learn from any mistakes that she has made. If your child shows an interest in photography as a hobby, there are several books about photography for kids that you can check out of the library. (See sidebar.)
One of the best things about homeschooling is that we can take field trips whenever we want to. Taking a digital camera with you makes a trip anywhere a learning experience. For example, bringing a camera along turns “hanging out in the backyard” into going out “into the field.” This is an excellent way to make a child instantly feel like an explorer or a scientist.
Digital photography is a perfect gateway to introducing children to the world of computers as tools, instead of as a means of entertainment. Giving your child control of the camera takes on even greater significance as you and your child create an official folder for his photos on the hard drive of your computer. This will make your child feel that his images are important, and it will also teach him basics about file systems and directories, another useful life skill.
If you decide that you want to get serious about using photography across the curriculum, you may want to invest in some photo software, such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Photoshop Elements. Both are standard software programs and are relatively inexpensive. Gaining a working knowledge of these programs will also help your child develop software skills that she can use in the future.
Photography presents many wonderful opportunities to teach science. Children are naturally inquisitive, and the scientific method is similar to their own process of exploring and discovering things. There are many ways to use a camera from a very early age to practice the steps in the scientific method and to formalize a process of inquiry: collecting data, comparing and contrasting, studying cause and effect, documenting change over time, and presenting conclusions.
Using photography to enhance your science curriculum is a great way to get your feet wet because of the natural ties to the scientific method of investigation. This, in turn, can lead to the use of photography as you teach other subjects, such as writing and math.
Social Studies & History
Two of the most logical places to incorporate photography into your curriculum are social studies and history. Photography has made an incredible impact on human history in the past 150 years. The invention of the camera and its subsequent developments have led to other inventions, such as motion pictures, film, video, X-rays, and digital imaging. There is no doubt that cameras have had a major impact in altering the course of human history, and the historical implications are broad.
Beyond the invention of the camera itself, certain photographs and photographers over the years have also had a significant impact. Who can forget the iconic images of Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange taken during the Great Depression? Civil War photographers such as Mathew Brady helped bring the realities of the battlefield to the towns and cities far away and helped people see what the soldiers were experiencing in a graphic way. Ansel Adams photographed the beauty of creation while breaking new ground with the use of photography as an art form. During the Vietnam War, photojournalists brought home images that solidified an antiwar sentiment in this country, and more recently, portrait photographers such as Richard Avedon and Annie Liebovitz have captured our attention with iconic images of human emotion.
To introduce photography as a theme unit in history, your child can study the biographies of early inventors of the modern camera. Of particular note is the story of George Eastman, who made photography more accessible to everyone by inventing the portable camera and film. History is often portrayed as a series of dates and events to be memorized; therefore, learning about the work of important photographers gives a behind-the-scenes view of major events in history, which in turn makes history come alive for your child.
Social Studies—Current Events
Photography provides a nice segue from history into current events and social studies. Anthropologists and sociologists have long used photography to document their studies, and your child can use photography to document events in his or her life and report on them as well. You can also use photography to inspire children to look through newspapers or news websites to find images that impact them. It must be noted, however, that you must use extreme discernment, because many photos can be very graphic in depicting death, human emotion, and destruction, and this sometimes includes the naked human form.
Language Arts & Writing
Over the years studies have been conducted in which researchers gave cameras to young children. The findings showed that by taking photos, children gained a better grasp of communication as a whole, and when a child took a picture it inspired him to share it with others. This led to better verbal communication and increased writing skills. Researchers also were able to learn a lot about what children were thinking by evaluating the photographs they took.
Using photographs is a great way to prompt creative writing. When your child takes a photo, ask her to describe it or explain why she took that shot.
Photography can be used to teach an object lesson in point of view. Go out in the yard, choose an object to photograph, and instruct your child to shoot it from the point of view of an ant or a giant or as the thing itself. If you go to an event, have your child take photos during different stages of the event. Then, when you get home, have her put the photos in order and write a caption about what is happening in each photo. This is a great way to practice describing a sequence of events.
A very simple way to begin a study of photography is to start a photo journal or a photo blog with your child. Seeing his photos online and sharing them with others can be highly motivating for your child.
Math is what makes photography work; therefore it is very logical to be able to incorporate it into your homeschool lessons. Photography can be used as a tool for teaching math at every grade level. For example, you can use photographs to help a younger child identify patterns in nature. Patterns are the basis of math, and being able to identify them and photograph them is a skill that your child can build upon.
Photography can also be used to identify shapes in nature and introduce basic concepts in geometry and symmetry. A fun project to do is to go out “into the field” and take photographs that can then be used to make or illustrate word problems. For geometry, it is fun to take photos of buildings and use them to practice measuring area or volume.
The camera itself uses math to calculate focal length, shutter speeds, aperture, and exposure times, which illustrate the concepts of fractions and inverse square law. Digital photography with its use of megapixels can help teach concepts such as the Cartesian plane and how the position of each pixel can be expressed as x and y coordinates.
There is something in nearly every academic area that relates to photography, and as a result there’s a plethora of ideas you can use to enhance your homeschool with photography. We’ve barely scratched the surface here! My goal is to help motivate you as the teachers, because the more motivated we are, the more engaged our children will be.
Digital photography provides you with a fantastic opportunity to get creative in your homeschool and to personalize your child’s learning even more. Take advantage of that opportunity and share the blessing of learning and growing with your child!
Whether you are planning to use photography as a tool for learning across the curriculum or you simply want to do a theme unit on photography, here’s a list of books that I came across in researching this article that I highly recommend (a few of which I was able to find at the library).
• A great book to help start you on your journey to using photography in the classroom is Picture Science: Using Digital Photography to Teach Young Children, Carla Neumann-Hinds (2007, Redleaf Press). It offers practical approaches to using photography to assist children in exploring the world around them, with sample science lessons and classroom applications. It explains how to use digital photography to make each step in the scientific method of investigation—from posing a question, to gathering data, to showing your findings—concrete and fun for children.
To begin on the journey of using photography to enhance other areas of your curriculum, such as history and physics, there are several books with good clear sections on photography. These are good for learning about the invention of the camera, and its development over time, as well as the general science behind the camera.
• How Things Work, an Illustrated Encyclopedia by Chris Oxlade (BackPack Books, 2005). This book has a very large section about cameras and photography and includes some very cool experiments and activities that illustrate each topic. You can get a used copy of this book on Amazon for less than a dollar, plus shipping.
• Photography by Alan Buckingham (DK Eyewitness Books, 2004). This highly regarded book covers the history and development of photography with lots of great facts and photos of historical artifacts.
• Click! A Story About George Eastman, by Barbara Mitchell (Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1986) is a short biography of this American inventor who singlehandedly revolutionized photography.
Books that compile a collection of iconic images are excellent to have on hand, and they can be used to discuss the art of photography and the history surrounding the images, as well be used as writing prompts for creative writing. LIFE magazine has published many books of photographs that they have run over the years, and their book 100 Photographs That Changed the World, edited by Robert Sullivan (Life, 2003), provides a good general overview to have on hand. A similar compilation is Time’s 100 Greatest Images: History’s Most Influential Photographs, edited by Kelly Knauer (Time Home Entertainment, Inc., 2012), which includes photos from the past five years.
For the budding photographer in your family I recommend Photography for Kids! by Michael Ebert and Sandra Abend (Rocky Nook, 2011). This book focuses on digital photography and provides clear tips and examples of how to master the basics of photography. Similarly, The Kids’ Guide to Digital Photography, by Jenni Bidner (Lark Books, 2004) covers digital photography but goes a step further and discusses in depth how to use computers and the Internet to make the most of the images. Last but not least are two older books: How to Photograph Your Life by Nick Kelsh and National Geographic Photography Guide for Kids by Neil Johnson (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2001). Kelsh’s book is chock full of excellent tips and advice for shooting photos in everyday situations. Johnson’s book gives a nice overview of photographic techniques peppered with photos and advice from National Geographic’s staff photographers, such as Sam Abell and William Albert Allard. Lastly, if your child wants to go a step further, check out Ten Photo Assignments by Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler, a book that provides real-world assignments that guide the novice to intermediate photographer to a mastery of the craft.
Lupe Tucker and her husband, Curtis, homeschool their five children in Florida. Former classroom teachers, they publish www.HomeschoolingFlorida.com and www.Homeschool-Evaluations.com, a portfolio review & standardized testing service. They conduct academic workshops across the country with the nonprofit organization www.KidsAboardWorkshops.org. A lifelong photographer, Lupe is always on the lookout for the perfect shot and is hopelessly addicted to photo books.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.