For the past 32 years, I have been a schoolteacher in New Jersey, where I presently teach gifted and talented classes to 4th and 5th graders. I consider myself to be very lucky. I have a job that I absolutely love. And I have found a way to fold my love of nature photography into that job and share it with countless others.
Because of these two passions, I am often the go-to person for friends and family when their children have projects for school. They know I have the right equipment, both as an educator and a photographer, to help a child accomplish what might otherwise be a daunting goal.
Last year, a friend asked me to help her granddaughter, Sara, with an extra-credit science project. The teacher challenged her students to visit our local wildlife refuge, Edwin B. Forsythe, during National Wildlife Refuge week. They had to return with proof of the visit, such as a photo of themselves in front of the refuge sign. Like her classmates, Sara could simply have asked to be driven to the refuge, snapped the photo with her phone, and returned home. But Sara knew I love photographing birds, and so she was excited to go with me. And happily, she wanted to learn how to shoot with my Canon DSLR camera and take her own photos of the birds we saw.
This activity opened up a new world for Sara and introduced her to two wonderful activities: birding and photography. After several hours in the refuge, she and I had each taken a multitude of photos. We spent a few more hours going through those images on the computer, and I taught her how to identify each bird. Instead of making a poster for the extra-credit assignment, Sara decided to create a video slideshow that showed off both her photos and her newfound knowledge. Now, Sara is a freshman honors student and starting center for her high-school basketball team. Her time is at a premium, but she still grabs her camera and gets outside to photograph birds and nature when she can.
Though this opportunity to introduce Sara to bird photography was driven by a school project, it would be easy to do the same thing with any child. Children have a natural curiosity that makes finding and identifying new birds fun. And adding a camera helps bridge the gap between nature and the consumer technologies that kids today already use comfortably.
To start, install a few well-placed bird feeders in your yard. The proximity of the birds that flock to it will make observing and photographing them easier. (If this isn’t possible, head to a local park.) At first, you might have the child just observe and identify various species. If your child is into smartphone and tablet apps, a bird-identification app, such as Audubon’s Bird Guide, might grab his or her interest even more.
Then suggest the child take photos. Most likely, he or she will already be proficient in using a smartphone and so could start with that. If you, like me, prefer using a DSLR camera and telephoto lens, look for the right opportunity to get that equipment into his or her hands. Back at home, you can upload these photos together to an album to share with family and friends—or if your child already has a smartphone, his or her camera roll can provide the beginnings of a life list.
Most kids develop a love for something that is shared by someone important to them. So go ahead, put binoculars and a camera in a child’s hands. Chances are, you’ll spark a lifelong interest in bird photography.