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Picture this: using photography as a learning tool in early childhood classrooms.

Pictures not only say a thousand words but also can help teach thousands of words, as well as many other skills, when they are used effectively in early childhood classrooms. Photographs, like book illustrations, allow children to see things that they may not have the opportunity to experience firsthand. Pictures can bring the ocean to children who may never travel to the coast, wild flowers that they may never see growing in their backyards, and animals they may only see if they are lucky enough to visit the zoo or travel to Africa. Typically, classroom photography is used to identify children's cubbies or to capture only special events in school. Rarely is it used as an everyday teaching tool. However, with the increasing affordability and availability of disposable and digital cameras, photography can be readily used in classrooms to facilitate learning.

In one preschool classroom, cameras and photographs were used to enhance activities and create new learning experiences with young children. The initial goal was to use pictures to promote children's language and literacy skills. Indeed, the children helped the authors discover numerous ways to use pictures to develop vocabulary, stories, and retelling strategies. Furthermore, in introducing the camera to the children, important learning experiences beyond vocabulary emerged.

Because the children were given the opportunity to use the camera and take their own pictures of things that interested them, their motivation for learning the vocabulary and labels for the content in their pictures increased. Children also learned such important skills as concept of sell patience, and turn-taking. Giving children the opportunity to take pictures provided insight into what they focus on and how they view the world. This article describes several successful activities that can be used to integrate photography in the early childhood classroom and to ensure that children gain as much as possible from the experience.

Research on Photography and Young Children

Researchers have found that photographs can facilitate learning in early childhood classrooms (Einarsdottir, 2005; Good, 2005/06). Most of the activities documenting children's experiences with photography describe the adult as the primary person taking the pictures and sharing them with children as part of classroom activities (Pastor & Kerns, 1997; Smith, Duncan, & Marshall 2005; Woods, 2000). When children are invited to take photographs, the teacher often guides the children in determining the subject of the picture and the use of the picture in the activity (Landerholm, Karr, & Mushi, 2000; Neuman-Hinds, 2007). For example, Hoisington (2002) engaged children in taking pictures to support science investigations in her Head Start classroom. Using photographs, the children were able to capture important aspects of the experiments they were conducting and to revisit and extend their science activities. The children, however, were told what pictures to take and they had limited access to the cameras; the adult made all of the decisions.

Children's success in learning is significantly dependent on how engaged they are in the learning process (Mayer & Wittrock, 2006; Piaget, 1955). Constructivist theorists argue that young children need to have "hands-on" opportunities in activities in order to effectively learn and construct meaning from an activity (Rogoff, 1990). Children learn different things when they act on their world compared to when they passively experience the world. Einarsdottir (2005) conducted a study in which she compared two approaches to children's use of cameras. In one approach, the children were accompanied by an adult as they took pictures of their school. In another approach, children took pictures of their school by themselves. The results indicated that when children were with an adult, the pictures were primarily of the playground and other adults and children in their environment. All of the pictures were described as "socially expected and acceptable" photographs of children's classroom experiences. Einarsdottir (2005) suggests that the children's pictures were influenced by the adult who was with them. The children who weren't accompanied by an adult took pictures with more unique content. The pictures were frequently of other children making silly faces and engaging in entertaining activities. A majority of the pictures also were of content that the author describes as private places, such as the bathrooms, hallways, and cubbies where children would wander and explore. These pictures appeared to capture the children's view of and interest in their world, a view that was not filtered by an adult's perspective.

In order to optimize the learning experiences with cameras and photos, it is important to allow the children to be actively engaged in the picture-taking process. Having children make decisions about what pictures to take, and having them actually use the camera to take the pictures, will increase learning opportunities and make the activities more salient to the children. This is especially important when the goal is to support children's language development and increase their vocabulary. Although some activities do require teachers to take pictures and guide children in their picture taking, there are numerous ways to support children in initiating picture taking. Providing children with the opportunity to decide the content of the picture and to talk about what is in the picture reinforces the children's learning of meaningful language and vocabulary.

Guidelines To Make Picture-taking Effective and Fun

A few guidelines can help children and teachers make the most out of this experience and use photography effectively in the classroom. First, teachers need to be open to allowing children to use cameras. Giving children the experience of holding the camera, taking photos, and seeing what they have captured on film can be a powerful experience and is key to the children constructing meaning from activities. This can be especially difficult with a more expensive digital camera that you may be afraid that the children will break. In this case, purchase inexpensive cameras and teach the children how to handle them carefully.

Second, you need to be open to children taking pictures in unconventional ways. Children tend to view the world in unique ways and the camera allows them to capture these different perspectives. As research suggests, young children like to take pictures of unconventional subject matter. For example, young children don't always want to take a picture of a whole object or of a whole person, but rather find part of a chair or a friend's ear much more interesting. Let them do this and enjoy this part of the process, as it provides a window into children's thinking.

Third, children need to have ample access to cameras. An ideal situation would be to have at least three digital cameras (but more would be better) in the classroom at any time, so that the children can take pictures and print them immediately. The ability to take a photograph and print it within minutes is very helpful, because it immediately allows the class to incorporate these images into their activities. For example, taking pictures of friends in the dramatic play area and, then, allowing children to immediately use the pictures to tell a story, create an art project, or simply document what happened in that center can be a powerful learning experience.

Different kinds of cameras have different advantages and disadvantages. One option to ensure ample access is to provide each child with at least one disposable camera. You can have children share a disposable camera, noting which child took pictures 1 through 5 and which child took pictures 6 through 10. Keep in mind that since the children are still learning about taking pictures and capturing images on film, they may not be able to identify which picture they took. Using a Polaroid Instamatic camera, which instantly develops the picture, or a digital camera, with images that can be immediately printed from the computer, helps the children see the magic and science in the process. With the Instamatic, they can watch as the image turns from a fuzzy blob to actual images of familiar people and places. With a digital camera, they can instantly view the image in the camera's viewing area. However, digital cameras tend to be more expensive and thus may require more explicit rules about camera care (see below).

Fourth, you need to be willing to have the film developed frequently, if you are not using digital or an Instamatic. The process of engaging the children with photography is most effective if the film is developed quickly and can be used in a project soon after taking the pictures. Finally, and perhaps most important, have fun with the children and be open to learning new things about them. The subject matter they include in their pictures provides a window into how they see the world. Listen to them and learn from them. Talk to children about their photographs and let them know what you are learning. Help them learn from each other, as well; this will foster even greater motivation among children to share their ideas in this new way.

Learning To Use the Camera

Showing the children how to use the camera is important in making photography a part of their learning experience. Introduce the camera as a special piece of equipment that needs to be handled with care, just as you would with a computer or DVD player. You might consider sharing this information in a large-group circle time and then revisiting it when children are in small groups to make sure that everyone understands the basic procedures. This introduction should be done for all cameras, from the most expensive digital camera to the inexpensive disposables. Designate a special place where the cameras are kept when they are not in use. Model for the children how to look through the viewfinder of the camera and focus on the image they want to capture.

Some children will learn quickly how to hold the camera still and aim to take a picture. Other children will be less precise in taking photographs. Either way, let the children experience taking pictures and seeing the images they have captured, as it will give them a sense of accomplishment and mastery. It also allows you to see what they are interested in and what they have chosen as their subject matter.

Using Photography To Build Vocabulary

Research on language and vocabulary development has shown that children who have more experiences have better vocabulary development, and thus are better prepared to learn to read and comprehend what they read (Connor, Morrison, & Slominski, 2006; Wasik, 2006). Photographs can be helpful in bringing words and concepts to the classroom. This is particularly true for common objects or places children may encounter in their everyday experiences but don't always have the opportunity to talk about or to learn labels for. When the children are producing the subject matter that they will talk about, they take ownership of the experience. In taking their own pictures, they are deciding what is important and constructing their own meaning of their experiences (Piaget, 1955). They also learn vocabulary that will help them describe their experiences. Thus, children can benefit when they and their classmates collect pictures in numerous ways and in many different places.

In this section, we describe several ideas for using pictures to foster vocabulary and other important literacy skills. Below are suggested activities that can be used as model practices for integrating photography into the early childhood classroom. In most of the activities, the children are expected to take the pictures, but for two of the activities, the teacher needs to take the photographs in order for the activity to work.

Picture Walks. Allow the children to take pictures while taking a walk through the school neighborhood or the school building, or while on a field trip to the zoo. During circle time, have the children talk about and describe the pictures. The child who took a picture of the bushes on the front lawn of the school and describes the color of the flowers can learn that the bushes are called azaleas. The child who describes the brightly painted red object as a trash can be told that it is called afire hydrant and water is drawn from it for firefighters to use. The child who describes the picture of the orange man that he saw at the zoo will learn that the correct pronunciation for the word is orangutan. The pictures, along with word labels, can be placed in a Word Picture Gallery area of the classroom, which the children can frequently visit and refresh with new words and pictures from their experiences.

Matching Game. Have children take pictures of objects and other children in their class. Put the pictures in random piles and have the children work in small groups to locate the objects/people that are depicted in the photographs in the room. This can be fun and challenging when the photographs show only part of the object and the child has to figure out what object has been photographed. For example, a child may have taken a photograph of the table leg or the end of a pencil or their classmate's red sneaker. Children can search the room to find the match to their picture. Allowing time to share their pictures with the group will provide the opportunity to use language and reinforce the vocabulary words.

Personalizing Pictures. Have the children take either the digital camera (if you feel that it can be cared for) or a disposable camera home for the evening or for the weekend. Be sure to explain to the families the value of providing children the autonomy of using the camera to take their own pictures. However, also help families establish some parameters with the children as to what they are allowed--and not allowed--to take pictures of or to share in school. Ask them to take pictures of their everyday experiences, such as eating dinner with their families, playing with their pets, or even just something as simple as showing their backyards or favorite hiding places in their homes. Have the children bring the pictures to school and talk about what they see in each picture and how it relates to their personal experiences. This allows children to talk about things that are familiar to them. It also allows the teachers to use vocabulary that may be unfamiliar to other children in the classroom. These pictures, and the classroom discussions about them, help broaden the children's perceptions and vocabulary. Encourage children to write down their descriptions of family experiences. Create a book they can take home and read with their families that details the family's experiences. Or have the families work on creating the book and have the children read their books to one another during circle and book sharing time.

Classroom Newsletter. Create a classroom newsletter so that the children have opportunities to showcase their pictures. Each child should have multiple opportunities to have his/her photographs included in the classroom newsletter. (The children can choose which photographs to include.) The newsletter can have photographs of special events and class trips, but also everyday events that the children have photographed. The children can select which of these pictures will be published in the newsletter. This newsletter can create an opportunity for parents to have conversations with their children about what is happening in the classroom. When the newsletter is published, children can talk about their pictures with the class. The children can then share these descriptions, stories, or their own interpretations of the photographs with their families. The newsletter creates a natural opportunity for children to talk about their school experiences through photographs.

Pictures for Storytelling and Retelling. Pictures also can be used to create stories, illustrate ideas in stories that the children have developed, or retell events. Through pictures, children can create stories that reflect their everyday experiences. Take pictures of the events of one entire class day and write a group story about a day in the life of your classroom, accompanied by the children's photographs. As the children become more experienced with using the camera, have them take pictures of activities in the classroom and "write" their own story about a typical day in their classroom. Having the children "write" means either having the children dictate their story to you or having them make approximations using scribbles or some forms of writing. Help children use vocabulary that describes the activities and objects used in class. Then ask children to tell their stories to you and to their friends. Using the pictures as cues, you might have children describe the book they read during circle time, the graham crackers they ate during snack time, the iron they used during dramatic play, and the seeds they planted during the center time activity. Be sure to reread these stories so that the children have repeated exposure to the vocabulary and to the content of the story.

Another way to integrate pictures and writing is to have children write a story first without pictures, and then have them take pictures that illustrate the words and ideas in their story. For example, children can write a story about their school, beginning with the name of their school and where it is located. Ask the children what picture would best describe the words on the page, and assign a few children to take pictures that represent each page of the story. Gather the photographs for each page and have the children select which picture best represents the words. This activity not only helps children begin to make the connection between words and pictures in a story, it also helps you assess their comprehension of the story. If the pictures they select do not match the words on the page, you can explore with the children what the text says and why they selected that picture. If the children didn't take a photo that represents the text, have them take additional photos.

As a fun activity, select some random pictures that the children have taken and have them make up a story that matches the pictures. The pictures can be an assortment, capturing experiences during field trips to the zoo, farmers market, or museum, as well as during children's normal daily lives. It will be fun and challenging to have the children weave a story based on unrelated pictures and develop a cohesive and, most probably, funny story. The result will be a silly story they can reread to the class and to others who visit their classroom.

Pictures also can be used to retell stories and events. Have children take pictures during their visit to the aquarium and use them to retell the events of the class trip. Select 10 pictures that capture your trip from the beginning to end. Paste each picture in sequence on a large piece of paper. Taking turns, have the children recount the trip to the aquarium, using the pictures as a guide and writing under the pictures what the children say. When the story is complete, have a few children "read" it to the class. Create a collection of stories related to your class trips and reread each one so that the children have multiple opportunities to hear new vocabulary words.

Picture Previews. You also can take pictures that provide children with a preview of an upcoming experience. Before taking a trip to the local farmers market or the zoo, you will likely want to visit these places yourself to see if they are appropriate for your class. When you do, take pictures. Then you can show children photos of things that they may see on their trip. Pictures of the giant squash and different colored apples at the market will help children learn the vocabulary for fruits and vegetables that they will soon see. Similarly, before a class trip to the zoo, have photos of the animals that children may encounter, such as the big polar bear, the colorful peacock, and the swimming penguins. This step allows children to become familiar with key vocabulary and concepts before the actual experience. The more familiar that children are with the terms and concepts, the more likely they are to use this language when talking about what they encountered.

Guessing Games. Pictures also can help children learn labels for unfamiliar objects and places in their environment for which they may not yet know the specific words. Pictures of the community grocery store, library, and park that the children visit frequently can be brought in and used to begin conversations about familiar places in the community; children can recount their experiences and discuss what they do at these places. This can be done as a guessing game, whereby you ask children to identify places, people, and things in their environment from pictures. For example, show them a picture of the local post office and ask the children to identify what it is and explain what happens there. Show a picture of a lawn mower or a kite and ask the children to tell you the name of the object and what you do with it.

Photo Albums To Remember the Year

Pictures that both teachers and children have taken throughout the year can be compiled into various photo albums that capture important moments in the children's lives. A class photo album, which chronicles the year's events, is a special remembrance for a child. This album could focus on an individual child and include pictures of him/her and pictures that he/she took. Also, a class album could include photographs of all the children and highlight the events throughout the year. This album could include a page contributed by each child that features various snapshots of the child throughout the year. A PowerPoint of selected pictures could be used at a closing ceremony.

The album also could be used as a picture book, providing even more opportunities to build vocabulary. The children could "read" the pictures as they tell a story of the events that occurred throughout the year. Each child's reading would be unique and provide insight into his or her perceptions of what happened during the activity or event. This activity also allows children to use vocabulary to describe the pictures and receive feedback on their use of these words from teachers and peers.

Concept of Self

In addition to helping language skills, pictures also can support the development of children's concept of self. In the preschool years, children are learning about object consistency; for example, even when people change their hair color, begin to wear glasses, lose a considerable amount of weight, or simply change their clothing, the identity of the person has not changed (Wong, Hillstrom, & Chai, 2005). Taking pictures of themselves and their classmates in different contexts wearing different clothing can help children understand that people remain fundamentally the same, even though they may look different from day to day. Have the children take pictures of each other on different days when they are wearing different clothing and when they are dressing up in the dramatic play area. Ask them to identify who is in the picture. Talk about how children and other people can look different depending on what they are wearing. Have the children take snapshots of their classmates wearing different hats and talk about how they look. Have the children identify pictures of themselves and then discuss what is the same and what is different about each picture. Use points of confusion when children cannot identify themselves in a picture as a teaching moment to talk about how appearances can be different but the person inside is the same.

Emotional and Social Development

Preschoolers are also developing important ideas--and vocabulary--about emotions. Photographs can help children learn the language for how they feel, which contributes to their social and emotional development as well as language development (Gallagher, 1999; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001). Putting labels on facial expressions helps children develop vocabulary for being able to talk about their feelings. For young children, it is good to have actual pictures of themselves demonstrating different emotions when you are talking about facial expressions and feelings so that they can think and talk about feelings in relation to themselves and their own experiences. Pictures of children smiling can be used to talk about feelings and what makes children happy. In addition, pictures of people crying or frowning can help children identify feelings of sadness. A child can demonstrate these various emotions as another child takes his/her picture. Again, this can help children talk about things that may make them sad. In fact, many of the preschool social and emotional programs include pictures of children's facial expressions. For example, Second Step (Frey, Hirchstein, & Guzzo, 2000), a program that fosters young children's social and emotional development, uses pictures to talk about how children are feeling.

Having children take photographs has an additional special benefit. Just as with building children's vocabulary for the objects in their environment, providing actual pictures of the children in the class will personalize and enhance these discussions about social and emotional development and help to encourage empathy among young children. For example, having pictures of a classmate when he or she is sad will help initiate a discussion about how it feels to be sad and what you can do to make your classmate feel better.


Photography can be a great tool in early childhood classrooms. If given the chance to use the camera, both children and teachers can discover important things about themselves and the world in which they play and work. Pictures can be used to create books and activities that spark children's imagination and make them interested in the world around them. Pictures also help children learn new words and even new social skills as they begin to identify the objects, events, and feelings portrayed in the photographs. Photographs can enrich the early childhood classroom and be the impetus for many engaging activities and events.

An Important Endnote

There is one important concluding note regarding confidentiality and privacy with minors and photographs. Parent or guardian permission is needed in order to take and display pictures of young children. As a matter of course, it is best to have parents provide written permission to take and show pictures of their children. Be careful not to display any pictures of children without the consent of their parents and do not display pictures of children on the Internet when public access is possible.


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Frey, K. S., Hirchstein, M. K., & Guzzo, B. A. (2000). Second Step: Preventing aggression by promoting social competence. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 8, 102-112.

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Hoisington, C. (2002). Using photographs to support children's science inquiry. Young Children, 57, 26-30.

Landerholm, E., Karr, J. A., & Mushi, S. (2000). A collaborative approach to family literacy evaluation strategies. Early Child Development and Care, 162, 65-79.

Mayer, R. E., & Wittrock, M. C. (2006). Problem solving. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed., pp. 287-304). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Neuman-Hinds, C. (2007). Picture science: Using digital photography to teach young children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Publishers.

Pastor, E., & Kerns, E. (1997). A digital snapshot of an early childhood classroom. Educational Leadership, 55, 42-45.

Piaget, J. (1955). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A., Duncan, J., & Marshall, K. (2005). Children's perspectives on learning: Exploring methods. Early Child Development and Care, 175, 473-487.

Snow, C. E., Tabors, P. O., & Dickinson, D. K. (2001). Language development in the preschool years. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language (pp. 1-25). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wasik, B. A. (2006). Building vocabulary one word at a time. Young Children, 61(6), 70-78.

Wong, J. H., Hillstrom, A. P., & Chai, Y.-C. (2005). What changes to objects disrupt object constancy? Journal of Vision, 5, 1042-1046.

Woods, C.S. (2000). A picture is worth a thousand words--Using photographs in the classroom. Young Children, 55(5), 82-84.

Julia Byrnes is a student at Archmere Academy, Claymont, Delaware. Barbara A. Wasik is Associate Professor, Curriculum Instruction and Technology in Education, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Byrnes, Julia; Wasik, Barbara A.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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