Digital photography: Behind the camera

Wendy Scott
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

<P> The gains that children in one far-seeing nursery made from using digital cameras are described by Wendy Scott </P>

The gains that children in one far-seeing nursery made from using digital cameras are described by Wendy Scott

Staff at Canterbury Children's Centre in Bradford, West Yorkshire, are convinced that fostering children's creativity raises their achievements in all areas of learning. And they have powerful evidence to prove it. One example is a recent initiative where they introduced digital cameras to three-year-olds in the nursery.

The centre's resident artist, Helen Sims, whose post was funded by the Early Excellence programme, decided to take part in a Digital Imaging Project being introduced across primary schools in the South Bradford Education Action Zone. The project was sponsored by Kodak and supported by experts from the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, which is based in Bradford. The aim was to develop and test effective ways of using digital media with children and provide associated training for schools in the area. The technology was new to Helen, but she learned along with the children and their parents.

In her opinion, the work she has done through the project could be adapted to any setting that already uses a digital camera to record children's activities and achievements. And she can see further possibilities for expanding the project by involving other staff more closely.

The centre has used digital cameras to record children's work for some time. First to be involved in the new project were a dozen three-year-olds, who attended either a morning or an afternoon session. The deputy head and their nursery co-ordinator decided which children should take part and integrated the photography project into their curriculum planning. The children's families were then invited to become involved.

Helen worked with the children individually and in small groups to show them how to operate the camera by themselves - she quickly found that a neck strap was a vital accessory - and made sure they understood how to operate the controls with care.

She found that the liquid crystal diode screen on the digital camera really helps children to select and frame their pictures. Another plus with digital cameras is that children can connect them to a computer and look at and then print out their snaps, so enabling them to see the results of their efforts at once.

The children were taught how to review their snaps and delete any unwanted images. When they had mastered the skills of using the camera with care, it became a tool for them to use. At this point, the children were handed responsibility for the cameras, including when they took them home. Thus each child became an expert, able to show other members of the family how to use the camera.

The children were encouraged to choose what they wanted to photograph, and to bring the camera back with them to the nursery the next day. Viewing the pictures they saved was fascinating, although it took a frustratingly long time to print them out. Helen felt it would be useful if there were simplified software that could meet the particular needs of younger children. She recorded her interviews with the children about their photographs on a dictaphone, which intrigued many of them.

The children's involvement in the project proved to be very worthwhile. Their pictures were the focus of detailed discussion - the kind of sustained shared thinking that the EPPE research project has shown to be vital to children's cognitive development. Because their photographs showed scenes and people that were not well known to the nursery staff but were important to the children, the children described and explained what was going on, and explained why they had decided to take each picture. These insights into their interests and perceptions fascinated their parents too.

At the start of the project, the staff had analysed possible outcomes linked to the six areas of learning in the Foundation Stage. They felt that children's personal, social and emotional development would benefit, and were impressed by the improvements in relationships, self-control and confidence that they and the parents observed.

Alongside the gains in children's physical dexterity, technical awareness and ICT skills, there were marked developments in the ability of some children to select, compose and frame their chosen subjects. Some began to consider the impact of where the photographer stood, and what happened if the camera was turned sideways.

Using a camera allowed several children to demonstrate a sophisticated awareness of geographical location, position and perspective, and a child who already had some experience of using a camera made a carefully planned study of her family's feet.

Sharing the pictures they had taken motivated children to talk about them, and thus benefited their expressive language and communication skills. One child who was in the early stages of speaking English had taken a photograph of his grandfather lying in bed. 'Grandpa... poorly', he said in English. When he was with a member of staff who spoke his home language, he explained, 'My granddad sleeps in the bed, he is poorly and went to hospital, and now he's come back'. She commented that he had said more to her in this context than on any other occasion (see photo).

All the children enjoyed having their pictures as a focal point for discussion. A girl described the events in one of her photographs to Helen like this: 'Look at my mummy... I were making buns... look at my apron, I mix that... my mummy puts it in the oven, then she checks it... 1,2,3 buns and I put sweets on.' Parents' comments showed the extent to which they too had become involved with the project. Typical remarks were 'He showed his dad what to do', 'She wouldn't put the camera down', 'He was totally self-engrossed', 'She learned how to respect other people's property'.

Some recognised the impact on their children in other ways - 'It developed hand and eye co-ordination', 'I've seen a real development in his language since he's been using the camera', 'He likes to remember things about the photographs', 'She's shown more interest in family photos around the home... said that she's like me when I was little'.

There was a great deal of interest when the centre decided to introduce an opportunity for parents to learn about using digital cameras, which they launched at one of their regular family fun days. The centre followed up with workshops, which have enabled some parents to learn how to download and print their own photographs. A parent who was involved in the digital imaging project has since taken on the task of recording and archiving photographs used in 'Baby Talk', a project run at the centre, funded by the Basic Skills Agency and which aims to improve the language skills of babies and young children.

Helen thinks children could select some of their own pictures for their records. Another development that she foresees is the use of specific photographs with children who have special educational needs. A child with autistic tendencies recently joined the centre, and was reluctant to move beyond a corner of the room. Pictures of familiar scenes from home displayed around the room encouraged the child to explore further, and encounter new places and other children. The potential for helping children who have language delay, physical difficulties or lack of confidence is also evident.

Ofsted has commended the value of the centre's commitment to creativity and its success in promoting children's overall development, together with the way it involves parents. The use of digital media has contributed significantly to this, and has proved to be an effective tool for integrated learning both for adults and children.

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