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Picture This! Using Photography in the Early Childhood Classroom
By Nancy Alexander

Using photography in your classroom is a great way to record children’s field trips and special activities, document their block constructions, or identify their cubbies. Photos are also great motivators for involving children in making their own books and personalizing projects. Whether you own a film or digital camera, this article presents techniques to help improve the usefulness and effectiveness of the photographs that you take and to make photography a part of your curriculum every day.


Why Photography is Important

While children are in your care, their parents often miss important childhood events – first steps, first bite of solid food, discovery of oneself in a mirror, tying shoelaces, and the enjoyment a child feels when he is with his friends. Photographs can provide a means of sharing these significant stages of development with parents. One word of caution: If you use slides during parent conferences or prints to create a bulletin board display, be sure that every child is included in at least one photograph. Parents like to see their children involved in class activities and can be disappointed when their children are not included. Here are some other benefits to using photography in your classroom:


·         Use photographs to build children’s self-esteem. Using photos to record children’s projects or creations demonstrates that you value them and their work.

·         Use photos of children’s families to bring diversity to your program. Family photos can help children see the relationships between the real person and the photo representation of a person, which helps them move from the concrete to the abstract. It also helps them see the similarities and differences between their family and others

·         Use photos for portfolios. Take pictures of block constructions, three-dimensional artwork, or other projects you wish to document that do not fit in a child’s file.

·         Use photos as springboards for children’s literacy experiences. Take a photo of something that interests a child and let her dictate a story about it.

·         Use photos to identify interest areas. Photos can be used to make selection boards. Simply take photographs of each of the interest areas in your classroom and put them on a “check-out board.” Selection boards are a great way to limit the number of children in an interest area and rotate the children to each of the learning areas in the classroom.

·         Use photos for “check-in” boards. Upon arrival at your program, each child can move their photo to signify they are present.

·         Use photos to document a field trip or any special project. Take pictures that include the preparations as well as the actual trip and any follow up. Children can relive the experience by putting the photographs in the order that they happened and/or retelling the story, which can then be developed into a wonderful language development activity.



“Documenting” Photo Tips*

Documenting Achievement With Good Activity Shots


1. Decide what your subject is! This may sound obvious. But, stop and ask yourself what is really important in this photograph. What do you want your photograph to show? What kind of story do you want your photograph to tell? Knowing this can help you narrow the scope of your photograph and help you communicate more clearly.

2. Move in close! Does this tip sound familiar? Whatever you have decided is important should fill the little viewfinder window as you look through your camera. Is there a lot of sky, wall, or empty space around your subject? Then move closer. Most photographs would communicate more clearly and be more pleasing if photographers just got closer to their subjects.

3. Change your point of view! Before snapping the picture, walk around your subject with the viewfinder to your eye. Can you eliminate any distractions in the background by changing your point of view? Try taking the picture from an unusual point or angle of view.

4. Keep your subjects busy! For more natural looking documentation of activities, try to avoid posed shots. If students get used to seeing the camera around your neck or your looking at them through the viewfinder without making a picture, they will be less likely to interrupt what they are doing to pose.

5. Relax! Every photo doesn’t have to be a prize winner. Most photos just have to show their subjects clearly.

*Reprinted with permission from “The Polaroid Education Program Presents A Child’s Eye View: Instant Imagery in the Early Childhood Classroom.” For more information about the Polaroid Education Program or to request a FREE copy of the publication, please call 800-662-8337 or visit www.polaroid.com.


Photography Techniques

While there is a place for taking portrait-type photographs, the most interesting photos are those that show children involved in activities throughout the day in an unposed manner. When a camera is first used in a classroom, children’s innate curiosity will often prevent effective candid picture taking. Allowing time to satisfy this curiosity and taking photographs that include all of the children will reduce or eliminate the “take my picture” reaction. How do you get the best photos of children engaged in daily activities?  The following techniques will help you.


Establish a Focal Point

The focal/interest point will be determined by the purpose of the photo. If you are taking slides of a child engaged in a matching activity to illustrate appropriate readiness activities for a workshop, you will want to ensure that the materials being used are clearly visible. If you plan to use the same activity to illustrate the development of self-concepts, you will want to show the child’s face with a look of achievement or satisfaction. Photographs to be used in a portfolio would need the activity or project to be clearly visible.


Move in Close

Photographs of children have a universal appeal because of children’s natural and uninhibited facial expressions. Once your children are accustomed to a camera in the classroom, you can capture a full spectrum of emotions. Because children are naturally expressive and spontaneous, pictures are more interesting when taken close enough to fully depict expressions such as joy, excitement, concentration, surprise, and even anger or boredom. Moving in close to the subject also serves as an additional means of establishing a focal point and eliminating unnecessary clutter in the picture. Use a zoom lens when you cannot physically get close enough to fill the viewfinder with the child or the activity.


Eliminate Clutter

Early childhood programs have walls covered with bulletin boards and classrooms filled with stuff – equipment, supplies, jackets, backpacks, teacher-made materials, boxes of resources, and more. Such backgrounds can be distracting in a photograph. Often a good shot can be made from several different angles, and if the adult is aware of the background, an angle can be selected so that the background isn’t a distraction in the photograph. A neatly arranged display of children’s artwork, for example, makes a better background than the pile of boxes you intend to put in storage.


Vary the Angle

To ensure photography success, you will  need to get down at the child’s level or climb up on a chair. A table activity, for example, will be best taken from above while a face-level shot will be most effective when trying to capture a child’s concentration on an activity. And don’t forget, some shots work best if taken vertically. Turn your camera sideways if the subject calls for it. For example, one child working a puzzle will work best as a vertical shot while three children involved in water play will need to be horizontal. You will often find it necessary to squat or sit on the floor to get the best angle. Following a busy preschooler or toddler while crouching and being constantly on the move can be tiring. Dress comfortably for bending, squatting, and moving quickly. In addition, wear clothing with pockets. Pockets are handy for lens caps, extra film, batteries, or memory cards, and you’ll avoid having to go to your desk which may cause you to lose shots.


Limit the Number of Subjects

Trying to get too many children in a picture will make it difficult to identify what is actually taking place since you will have to be further back from the activity and the activity will be smaller in the photograph. Moving in close and varying the angle will enable you to pick out one or two children engaged in an activity. Focus on the activities that have children working individually or in small groups to get the most interesting photographs.


Take a Lot of Pictures

Even professional photographers take many shots to assure a good one, and often shoot a whole roll to get one picture they will use. There are several benefits to taking many pictures:

·         The more children are accustomed to having pictures taken, the less the camera will interrupt their activities, and the less they will tend to pose.

·         The more pictures you take, the more skilled and faster you will become.

·         The more photographs you take, the more you have to choose from when you need to illustrate a point.

·         Some photos will inevitably have subjects with closed eyes, unattractive expressions, an arm which blocks the activity, or other undesirable or distracting elements.


Working With Flash

When using flash, try to have children away from walls or flat-surfaced equipment that will result in dark shadows. Avoid positioning yourself where the flash will be directly in the child’s eyes. This can result in a “red-eye effect.” Red eye occurs when the light from the flash reflects from the retina. If your camera has a brief “red-eye reduction” preflash, it will help automatically reduce or eliminate the red-eye effect.


Getting the Best Shots

Your best shots will be taken when children are totally absorbed in activity. Activities that involve children putting together puzzles, engaging in water play, eating snacks, and painting at an easel generally keep them in one place long enough for you to take several photos. Use what you know about children’s behavior to get the shot you want. Saying, “I hear the telephone ringing. Who’s going to answer it?” will get a child to use a play telephone better than trying to pose a shot.

Toddlers can be a real challenge – from a parent’s standpoint, a caregiver’s, or a photographer’s. Their expressions and moods can change in an instant, and their short attention span means they rarely stay in any one spot long. A camera with an automatic focus is almost essential for photographing toddlers in a classroom. They change activities and move around so quickly there is often not enough time to change settings or to focus.

Fours and fives can be caught engrossed in an activity where they are in one place long enough to get the shot you want. They also will respond to verbal cues. “Hug your baby,” can elicit a great shot of a child with a doll; “Pour the water one more time,” can keep the water play going while you snap another frame.



If you are not taking a lot of photos in your classroom, you may be missing many opportunities to enhance your curriculum. There are many inexpensive and easy-to-use cameras to get you started. Watch for sales on film and processing or use your classroom computer and printer. With all the available automatic cameras available, you will find learning to use photography in your classroom is a “snap.”


Nancy P. Alexander is director of Northwestern State University Child and Family Network in Shreveport, Louisiana. She is the author of Early Childhood Workshops that Work: The Essential Guide to Training and Workshops, published by Gryphon House. She is a frequent contributor of articles and photographs to early childhood publications.