Digital cameras for kids:

Learning tools and windows into the minds of children

© 2010 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Digital cameras for kids have many uses. They give us the opportunity to see the world from our kids' perspectives. They are also useful learning tools--helping kids expand their vocabularies, hone their story-telling skills, and enrich their scientific investigations.

Here I review some of the research about child photographers, and I offer some ideas for camera-based learning activities.

I also offer a few, basic tips for choosing your child's first camera.

Why digital cameras may revolutionize research about kids...and enrich your own understanding of your child's world

Some people mistrust high tech toys. But digital cameras for kids should make everybody happy--even those who worry that electronic toys and games are stifling children’s creativity.

Digital cameras eliminate the expense of film developing, making photography an affordable hobby for children. That’s a revolutionary change, but it’s taking time for the implications to sink in.

For the first time since the invention of photography, it’s reasonable to give even young kids a camera and let them loose.

The results are intriguing. The photographs taken by kids give us rich insights into their minds. We get to see what is important to them. We get to see the world through their eyes.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider that cameras are beginning to be used by researchers to understand what children look at.

There are studies that involve mounting “baby cams” on infants’ heads (e.g., Aslin 2009). And some creative researchers are constructing visual ethnographies of children—giving kids cameras and analyzing the results (e.g., Jorgenson and Sullivan 2009; Pahl 2006; Darbyshire et al 2005; Mizen 2005).

What do kids photograph?

Researchers in Europe gave kids cameras to find out (Sharples et al 2003).

The kids were from five different countries and represented three age groups—7-, 11-, and 15-year-olds. They kids were shown how to use the cameras, but they weren’t given any lessons in photography or aesthetics.

When the researchers examined the photos, they noted several patterns:

• The 7-year-olds were more likely to take photographs at home, and they took more photographs of their possessions (like toys).

• Compared to older and younger kids, 11-year-olds took more photographs that excluded people. They photographed more outdoor scenes, and they took the fewest number of posed photographs.

• Overall, the 11-year-olds took the most artistic or unusual photographs. They also produced the greatest number of photos judged to be of exhibition quality by the researchers.

• The older kids (11-year olds and 15-year-olds) were more likely to take humorous or silly photos.

• The teenagers were the most focused on their social world. They took lots of photographs of groups of kids—their peers.

• Kids valued spontaneity. The older kids expressed a conscious preference for photos that were unplanned.

• Older kids—the 11- and 15-year-olds—experimented with different photographic effects, like odd camera angles.

So digital cameras for kids offer lots of opportunities for play and exploration. What else can you do with a digital camera?

Digital cameras for kids: Activities for child photographers

Tell stories

As noted by Julia Byrne and Barbara Wasik (2009), kids can use photographs to illustrate their own stories. Kids might begin with their photographs, writing a story to go with them. Or they might write a story first and then take photographs.

For preschoolers, Byrne and Wasik suggest you make an activity out of matching the photos to the text. Present kids with the set of photos they’ve taken and ask them to choose the best one for each page of text. Ask them to explain their choices. If nothing fits, encourage kids to take another photograph.

For another twist, give kids a set of random photos and ask them to weave a tale around them.

Create facial expression flash cards

Help young children create a set of “emotion” photos--pictures of people making a variety of emotional facial expressions. If you print the photos out, you can use them to play these educational games.

Study animal behavior

There’s a reason why zoologists take photos. You can capture details in a photograph that are either hard to see or hard to analyze in real time. So wildlife (and even pet) photography isn’t just pretty. It’s also a tool for scientific inquiry. And with a zoom lens, kids may discover that their animal subjects are much more interesting than they ever realized.

Take the camera on nature walks, to the park, and to the zoo. And let kids decide what to photograph. Pigeon feet? Ants? The dog’s nose? Kids pick these subjects because they are already interested in them. And, chances are, the results will yield more learning opportunities than any standard, well-composed “postcard” image.

Collect animal tracks and traces

As I’ve argued elsewhere, tracking may help kids hone analytical and spatial skills. Photography allows kids to collect the clues they’ve found and review them over and over again. You can show kids how to include a coin or other object in the photograph to give the viewer a sense of scale. And have kids make a scrapbook of their discoveries (below). For other tips, see these animal tracking activities for young children.

Create exhibitions and displays

Creating displays and collections of photographs are activities in their own right. Encourage your kids to keep their photos in an album or scrap book. For those favorite, special photographs with high resolution, you might consider blowing them up for display on the wall.

Measure change over time

How does your family’s kitchen change over the course of the day? What does an ice cube look like as it melts? Photography helps kids record changes and think about the passage of time. Here are some examples:

• Use the camera to document how a flower (e.g., a morning glory) opens at daybreak and closes at night

• Put a plant near a source of sunlight and photograph it daily. Document the progress of phototaxis—the plant’s growth in the direction of the light.

• Try photographing the same outdoor scene under different weather conditions.

• Photograph the progress of a cleaning or tidy-up session around the house.

• Make rock candy (large sugar crystals) and take daily photos to document the growth of the crystals.

• Place a cookie or some other food near an ant trail and take photos every few hours.

Advice for parents

So you’re sold on the idea of digital cameras for kids. What next? Here are some tips.

Let kids use the camera without your constant supervision.

Want to see the world from your child’s perspective? Then you should probably leave him alone. That’s because adults change the way kids use cameras. We make suggestions about what kids should photograph. We tell them how to compose good shots. And even if we try to keep quiet, our mere presence may still influence what kids do.

In one study of digital cameras for kids, Johanna Einarsdottir (2005) gave children cameras and compared two groups. One group of kids took photos while they showed the adult around their school. The other group of kids snapped pictures unsupervised. The results?

Even though the adult didn’t give kids any instructions about what to photograph, the mere presence of the adult had an effect. When accompanied by the adult, the kids confined their photography to conventional subjects, like images of the school playground.

By contrast, the kids who got to use their cameras unsupervised produced very different photos. Most featured quirky or private places—like hallways, cubbies, and bathrooms. And the subject matter was more distinctive (e.g, photos of other kids goofing off).

Choose a camera with child-friendly features

You won’t want to let your child use the camera unsupervised if it’s too expensive or delicate. But in your search for a solution that is both rugged and budget-friendly, be careful about skimping on features that will make your child's camera a really useful learning tool.

Megapixels

Many digital cameras for kids—i.e., those specifically designed for kids—often have low resolution and only 1.3 megapixels or less.

This might suit your purposes—particularly if you don’t plan to print out the photos. But many people—including preschoolers—complain that the image quality is unsatisfactory.

If you plan to print images at a normal size (e.g., 4 x 6”), then you’ll probably be happy with anything over 4 megapixels. If you plan to blow up your prints, then you’ll want more than 5 megapixels.

But don’t take my word for it. The technology is constantly changing, and different people have different standards. Investigate the options yourself.

Zoom

As you shop around, keep in mind that optical zoom is better than digital zoom. Why? Digital zoom merely enlarges the pixels, so you get more “snow” or “noise.”

Expandable memory

Get an extra memory card. Kids take lots of pictures. You don’t want to be pestered every hour to empty a full card.

Batteries

Some cameras run on AAs, which is extremely convenient. You can use rechargeable NiMH batteries or disposables. The charge doesn't last long, however, so you'll want to keep a supply of charged batteries at hand. Depending on how many shots you can get per charge (which varies by camera), this might seem like too much bother.

The alternative is to buy a camera that comes with a proprietary rechargeable battery (i.e., one that is designed specifically for use with your brand of camera). These last longer between charges. But there are two problems:

(1) if the camera's proprietary battery runs down at an awkward moment, you're out of luck. You must recharge the proprietary battery before taking more pictures.

(2) The proprietary battery will eventually fail to hold a charge and require replacement. Replacement batteries are expensive and they may become unavailable if your camera's model becomes obsolete.

For these reasons, some people buy an extra proprietary battery when they purchase their cameras.



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References: Digital cameras for kids

Aschermann, E. et al. 1998. Photographs as Retrieval Cues for Children. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 12, 55-66.

Byrne J and Wasik BA. 2009. Picture this: using photography as a learning tool in early childhood classrooms. Childhood Education 85(4): 243

Clark-Ibanez M. 2004. Framing the social world through photo-elicitation interviews, American Behavioral Scientist 47(12): 1507-1527.

Darbyshire P, MacDougall C, and Schiller W. 2005. Multiple methods in qualitative research with children: more insight or just more? Visual Communication 2: 303-320.

Einarsdottir J. 2005. Playschool in pictures: Children's photography as a research method. Early Child Development and Care 175: 523-541.

Good L. 2006. Snap it up: Using digital photography in early childhood. Childhood Education 82: 79-85.

Jorgenson J and Sullivan T. 2009. Accessing children's perspectives through participatory photo interviews. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 11(1), Art. 8, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs100189.

Mizen P. 2005. A little "light work"? Children's images of their labour. Visual Studies 20(2): 124-139.

Pahl K. 2006. An inventory of traces: children’s photographs of their toys in three London homes. Visual Communication 5(1):95-114.

Rasmussen, Kim. 2004. Places for children—Children's places. Childhood 11(2): 155-173.

Sharples M, Davison L, Thomas GV, and Rudman PD. Children as photographers: an analysis of children’s photographic behavior and intentions at three age levels. Visual Communication 2: 303-320.

Content last modified 5/10