About the Author

Freelance writer and Sigma Pro photographer David FitzSimmons is also a professor at Ashland University. A father of two, he is often accompanied in nature by his wife, Olivia, a naturalist and librarian, and his budding naturalist daughters, Sarah and Phoebe. He is the author of the award-winning children's picture book, “Curious Critters,” and he helps children and young people learn about digital nature photography.

WILD-SNAPPING: Digital Photography Helps Techno-Savvy Kids Focus on Nature

Convincing today’s wired kids that nature is more exciting than technology is a hard sell. It’s better to find ways for children to integrate technology with their experiences in nature. One of the easiest options is digital nature photography.

Students from Tremont Elementary School, Upper Arlington, Ohio, spent a day in nature. Here students photograph a male Chinese praying mantis as part of their digital storytelling projects. Photo copyright 2012 David FitzSimmons.

I recently visited Tremont Elementary School, Upper Arlington, Ohio, sharing my picture book, “Curious Critters,” with K – 5 students. Two days later I accompanied about 150 of these students on a field trip to a local farm/nature center. There I assisted them in taking pictures of scurrying animals, spectacular wildflowers, and majestic trees. It was great fun, and we all learned a lot.

When I sat down to record my thoughts about working with the Tremont Elementary School students, I decided to organize my writing around five ideas expressed in many of the post-visit student surveys.

1. Cameras Encourage Experiences in Nature

Taking camera-toting children into nature—whether in their own back yards, walking through a woods, or visiting a state or national park—catalyzes visual creativity. Children want to take pictures, so they begin finding all kinds of amazing subjects to photograph.

The more fascinating things they find, the more they want to visit natural places again. One 4th grader wrote, “I have never thought of taking pictures of nature, but I will try more often.” A 5th grader wrote, “I feel that I could just stay out there forever and just take pictures.” Sometimes all we need to do is get children started. Children as young as two years old can enjoy taking pictures.

Before heading out into nature with 4th and 5th graders from Tremont Elementary School, I enjoyed a school visit, where I talked about the animals, photography, and writing in my children’s picture book, “Curious Critters.” Students at Tremont had already read “Curious Critters” and were using it as to guide them in their digital storytelling. Photo copyright 2012 David FitzSimmons.

2. Focus on Nature

One of the most beneficial aspects of taking pictures is how it helps fine-tune our vision. Photography is as much about what picture-takers frame in as what they frame out. Children are able to momentarily dismiss much of what is around them, letting them focus on what is in the camera’s viewfinder.

Among the student’s favorite subjects were insects (praying mantises, butterflies, grasshoppers, and various beetles) and flowers (goldenrod, asters, and other late summer wildflowers). As students zoomed in on these subjects, they became much more fully aware both of animal behaviors and of local habitats. Students got down on their knees to examine spider webs, flowers, and all kinds of critters.

3. Hybrid Experiences

Children practicing digital nature photography continue enjoying technology. By putting their technological know-how to use outdoors, they develop what Richard Louv in The Nature Principle calls “hybrid thinking.” The two pursuits—one technological, the other natural—fuse together two different intelligences, forming a hybrid way of thinking.

Consider the deep concept offered by a 5th grader: “[Nature] feels like a gift. It is like a big piece of Earth, and it changes every day. So I could take pictures of something every day, and it would change every day. So it won’t get boring.” These are the beginning steps of developing a hybrid intellect

Tremont Elementary students worked on creating their own animal portraits. Here a student photographs a grasshopper placed inside a light tent, a photographic tool that helps create even lighting and provides a white background. Upon returning to the classroom, she and other students will write words to accompany their animal photos. Photo copyright 2012 David FitzSimmons.

4. Memorializing Moments

Digital photographers return home, where they create slide shows, print artwork, or load JPGs onto smart phones for instant access. Nature is transformed from something “out there” to memories that remain. “I find it appealing to take pictures of nature,” wrote one 5th grader, “because it is like taking home a part of nature.” Another, in describing how she felt about nature photography, stated: “Definitely great. Let’s say I took a picture of a tree in the fall time. I come home, and I look at the picture. The tree is officially in my house.”

5. Click-n-SharePerhaps the greatest benefit for children is social interaction. By printing, emailing, or just showing the image on the back of the camera to others, digital nature photographers spread their enthusiasm for nature and for photography.

Reflecting on sharing images, one 5th grader wrote, “There are creatures and plants that we have never seen in our lives, and we should show the world by pictures.” From such enthusiasm conservationists develop. Another expressed that nature photography “makes me feel good because it helps other people know that nature is IMPORTANT!”

Parents and children can enjoy digital nature photography together. Here a father and his son, camera in-hand, inspect a spider hiding in the grass. Photo copyright 2012 David FitzSimmons.

We lead busy lives, and sometimes it’s hard for parents to get out into nature. Unfortunately, the same can be true for our over-scheduled children. A wistful 4th grade photographer wrote, “I wish I could take a lot [of pictures] of nature, but sometimes I’m really busy.”

Families need to encourage young photographers to become immersed in nature. As one 5th grader put it, “Taking pictures of nature…opens a new door to life.”

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Note: Student quotations have been revised for grammar and mechanics.

More information about David FitzSimmons and his book, “Curious Critters.” 

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Comments (5)

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  1. Nancy Lowe says:

    We encourage kids of all ages to take nature photographs, and are especially interested in photographs of moths: http://www.discoverlife.org/moth …. Your photos can become data to help us understand how climate change, land use, pollution and invasives affect species and their interactions. If you’d like an album on Discover Life to upload your moth photos, or your photos of other insects, plants, fungi, or any living thing…. write to Outreach Coordinator Nancy Lowe at nancy@discoverlife.org … Great for older kids especially!

  2. Clarice Lisle says:

    I LOVE it! Kids and photography is a fantastic way to nurture natural world appreciation. My students put together a Biodiversity Snapshots book with photos from kids and parents within our local community. Their shots were amazing. They all agreed that it was fun and relaxing at the same time. Who might have thought that we would see majestic Brolgas on our urban lake!

  3. Dave Room says:

    This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Do you have materials that you can share? We’d love to link to them from our website (pachaspajamas.com).

  4. Dwain Wilson says:

    YES! Months back I intended to post a comment in the Kids & Technology discussion thread started after Louv’s comments about Facebook’s expansion.

    While I’m no fan of Facebook (it’s a necessary evil in the nonprofit sector), I found that far too many of the comments were of the all-or-nothing variety. Considering that technology is very much part of today’s children’s ecology, it is futile (and I think wrong) to try and completely remove it from their experience in nature. After all, it’s just a tool. It’s value is derived from its use.

    And that use must be balanced. At the Wildwoods Foundation, photography and technology are very much a part of our Full Circle program.

    Beginning with two photo expeditions (one in the Santa Monica Mountains and the other in the neighborhood around their school), each participating class completes a “Web of Our World” website that allows students to use their own discoveries to construct a website that serves as a reflective comparison of natural ecology with human culture – and an exploration of the systems at work in the world around us.

    These sites are a wonderful way to see the world through the eyes of a child. I invite you to come take a look around at http://www.WebofOurWorld.org.

  5. Flavia Gaskin says:

    I love all of these ideas and have one addition to share. By creating an open-ended photo scavenger hunt for a field study trip, we allowed students the freedom to explore while also making certain that they focused on certain things we were studying at the time. They loved sharing the images when we were back at school. Their photo collections also assessed their learning.

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