Cameras in the Early Childhood Classroom: A Powerful Tool for Documentation and Reflection

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher 

If you want to photograph a man spinning, give some thought to why he spins. Understanding for a photographer is as important as the equipment he uses. 
Margaret Bourke-White,  photojournalist 

Cameras are an important and powerful tool to deepen Bing Nursery School teachers’ understanding of children and their development. Teachers use them to document children’s experiences at school such as their engagement with one another and with teachers, their curiosity about the natural world and their creative exploration and discoveries using open-ended materials. 

A photograph can also encourage reflection. Photography allows teachers to measure milestones or skills mastered, to better understand challenges and to provide insight into the process of each child’s growth and competency. Through photographic images, teachers develop a deeper understanding of what children are doing and why it is meaningful to them and are able to interpret to parents what children are learning. 

In addition to documentation and reflection, teachers use photographic images of children for many other purposes: to construct a bulletin board display of the ongoing progress of a long-term classroom project, create innovative curriculum materials, represent children’s growth and development as part of a child’s portfolio at parent conferences, open a window into the classroom through slideshows or newsletters and illustrate presentations at professional conferences. 

“Kodak moments” or sentimental snapshots are wonderful, but Bing teachers do not ask children to say “cheese” or smile: Our interest is in documenting children’s authentic interactions with one another and deep engagement with open-ended materials and the natural world. The photographs taken by Bing teachers have the ability to “draw parents in and help them better understand their child,” said photographer and former Bing parent Christina Vervitsioti-Missoffe. 

A child takes photos with a designated digital camera.

In preparation for autumn quarter and the beginning of a year celebrating Bing’s 50th anniversary, Bing staff produced a photo display, “Image of the Child,” to help articulate our play-based philosophy. For the display, teachers selected photographs of a child or a group of children and wrote brief explanations about the images they chose. Head teacher Colin Johnson explains, “The exercise revealed profound assumptions that we make about how children view their surroundings, how they interact with and learn from the environment, how they are inherently and fundamentally competent, intentional, and that they live in the moment. The lens with which we view young children underscores the actions we take to support their development and contributes a great deal to what makes Bing such a special place.” 

Several weeks later, teachers invited the children to share their unique perspectives through photographs. A designated “children’s camera” was given to each classroom. Children were encouraged to take as many pictures as they wanted throughout the day. Teachers in Center PM sensed the children’s growing curiosity about cameras and decided to pursue a classroom project on photography. Putting cameras into the hands of children was an opportunity to reverse the role that adults and children have had about picture-taking. Center PM teachers printed out the images taken by the children: friends at play, teachers taking pictures of them taking pictures, grass and trees and sky, feet and hands, close-ups of dolls and trucks and familiar playthings, impressionistic swirling colors of the inside of a cup of paint. Some photographs were unintentionally but artfully blurry as a result of movement, others almost surreal in their point of view or subject matter. 

Teachers in Center PM asked children what they knew about cameras and their theories about how cameras worked. Their responses:

It takes pictures. –Bella

You wear it around your neck. –Andrew

You look through a camera. –Noah

Some people pass by with a camera. They ask other people if they can take pictures. If they say “yes,” they do! –Nura

When it’s dark out, you need a bonfire for light. –Evie

It’s a lever inside of it and it pushes the lightbulb down and it flashes. Something holds the button and the button is snapped onto a light reflector and then every single time it flashes, it flashes on the film. –Xia

A child explores a vintage camera with accordion. 

Children also explored cameras and drew them. Observational drawings invite children to be thoughtful observers, to notice details and to ask questions in order to further their understanding. Vintage cameras, both box and folding cameras with accordion bellows, were brought into the classroom for children to draw. The children took note of each camera’s shape and its various components and their functions: the lens, shutter, film-winding knob, picture-taking button and viewing window. They were curious about what the camera looked like inside and what happened in the lens when they pushed the picture-taking button. By mounting their pictures of cameras on cardboard and adding a piece of string for a strap, the children were able to wear their “cameras” and pretend to take pictures. “Let’s go, Bella. Let’s take pictures outside!” said Madina.

Photographs taken by teachers throughout the year are used for reference and reflection in spring parent conferences as well as a visual complement to the summary of development that teachers give to parents at the end of the year. 

Children’s cameras are still available in each classroom, and the photographs that children continue to take are being archived as a resource for future research, documentation or presentations to parents and early childhood educators.