Inspiring Environmental Responsibility in the YL Classroom with Photography

When I was 11 years old, my father gave me my first camera and took me to a friend’s backyard garden to photograph birds. Sitting in a small shelter with my eye pressed against the camera’s viewfinder, I watched as bright red cardinals and brilliantly colored blue jays landed on the edge of a bird feeder. I remember being captivated by their beautiful feathers and by their behaviors, both things I had never really noticed before. It was through that same camera that I started paying closer attention to the world around me—to the change in seasons, to the weather, and to the animals that called my backyard home. The act of taking pictures transformed my relationship with the environment and eventually inspired me to pursue a career as a photographer and a conservationist. It made me realize that photos can inspire environmental responsibility in those who see them.

Today, across the world, many children and adolescents are spending less time engaging with nature and more time looking at digital screens. A nationwide study in the United States found that 8-to 18-year-olds spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media during a typical day [1] and other countries have documented similar figures on screen time. Studies have also shown that children are spending less time playing outdoors around the world, both during school hours and when they are at home [2]. As an environmentalist, these trends concern me—I worry that kids who spend less time in nature will care less about our environment in the future. After all, if children don’t know that bluebells exist, will they notice if they disappear?

While it would be easy to disparage technology in light of these trends, I believe that the digital camera is one of the most powerful tools we have for reconnecting young learners to the natural world. For the last 14 years, I’ve been using photography to teach natural history, science, and environmental education to children and youth across the globe. Just this past summer, I spent a week with ten teenagers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA as part of an environmental photography workshop. After some initial grumbling about the lack of Wi-Fi and cell reception, the students forgot about the internet. Instead of texting, they used their cell phones as cameras. They paid attention to the veins of leaves and to the shapes of seedpods. One afternoon, we spent three hours in a stream photographing tiny salamanders. I almost had to drag them away so that we could make it back to camp before dark.

My experience with these students is not atypical. At workshops I’ve taught around the world, from Mauritius to Malaysia, I’ve seen kids who claim they “aren’t that interested in nature” become fascinated with snails and beetles when they see them through a camera lens. And I would argue that students who are fascinated with nature are more likely to care about the environment and to act in environmentally responsible ways. One of my favorite authors, David Sobel, sums this up in his book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education: “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”

So how can you start incorporating nature photography into your lessons and inspire environmental responsibility in your young learner classroom?

Transform young learners into explorers through photo assignments.
Digital cameras help young learners to slow down and to pay attention to the world around them. Once they discover the hidden world beneath their feet, they start looking more closely at leaves, tree bark, and other natural elements. As an educator, you can facilitate their curiosity by providing an activity, like a photo scavenger hunt or a photo assignment, that focuses their attention on certain aspects of nature.

Help young learners become storytellers.
When you put a digital camera into a child’s hand, you are giving them a voice and the power to share what they have found with others. I find that some of the most powerful learning experiences take place when students are describing what they have photographed and why it interested them. Encourage your young learners to talk about the photographs they create and to share their stories with the whole class.

Use photography to teach lessons about science and natural history.
You can teach scientific concepts using photography by asking young learners to photograph the change in seasons, the water cycle, or different types of clouds. You can also work together as a classroom to create a photo guide to animals and plants found near your school. Check out some nature guides from the local library and help your students identify the creatures they have photographed.

Teach nature photography anywhere and everywhere.
I’ve conducted nature photography workshops in parking lots, school gardens, and athletic fields. The amazing thing about young learners is that they get just as excited about ants and worms as they do about tigers and elephants. You do not need to travel far to use photography as a tool for environmental education.

Nature photography has been nothing short of transformative in my life and I hope that it can play a positive role in the lives of young learners around the world. By using photography in the young learner classroom, you can inspire environmental responsibility in your young learners and help them develop a positive relationship with the natural world. Later in life, the seeds you have planted will hopefully inspire them to care about the environment and to pass that same ethic onto other young learners.

[1] Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8–18 year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.

[2] Singer, D., Singer, J., D’Agostino, H., & DeLong, R. (2009). Children’s pastimes and play in 16 nations: Is free-play declining? American Journal of Play, Winter, 284-312.

Now you’ve read this why not listen to Gabby’s interview talking in more detail about environmental responsibility in the ELT classroom.

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Author: Gabby Salazar

Photographer and conservationist Gabby Salazar travels around the globe to document rare and endangered species and to raise awareness about their plight. She is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a former President of the North American Nature Photography Association, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Photography, and a member of the Emerging League of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). At 19, she founded a student magazine with Nature’s Best Photography to promote photography as a way to connect kids with nature. She continues to teach photography to children and teenagers around the world.

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