Focus on Nature - Connecting Youth to Nature Through Photography

In May I had the opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature on one of their workshops to photograph the days events. Focus on Nature is a non-profit charity, operating in Guelph, Ontario, that provides a nature photography program for children in grades four to six. They are aligned with the Ontario visual arts curriculum with their main goal being to connect youth with nature through photography. The program aims to encourage and inspire students to increase their confidence, feed their creativity and instill a healthy appreciation for the natural world. I was looking forward to the day but I couldn't have guessed how powerful the experience was going to be. 

The day began with me arriving at St. Patrick's Catholic School to meet with the Focus on Nature folks. Today's class was a five / six split taught by Mrs. Porcellato. I was immediately told to go to the office. Fortunately, unlike a few times in my elementary school days, this visit was just to sign in! After signing in I went down to the library to meet with Roblin May, the Chair of the Volunteer Committee and Dianne, John and Ric, the workshop volunteers. Focus on Nature has a number of volunteers that help run the daylong workshops at schools across Guelph. I was treated to a very pleasant welcome and was introduced to how the day was to unfold.  

The first part of the day happens in the classroom where the children learn the basics of photography. Roblin taught them compositional concepts such as patterns, negative space, rule of thirds, form and leading lines. The students were also given guidance on how to frame the subject in relation to things around it. The energy in the room was one of enthusiasm and intrigue. The students were soaking up all the information and enjoying every moment of the presentation. Hands were being raised left, right and centre to ask and answer questions. It was so nice to see these kids so eager to unleash their creativity! 

After the presentation was complete, the cameras were assigned to the students. Focus on Nature uses Panasonic Lumix Tough point and shoot cameras. These are great for the students (and any outdoor adventure types) as they are waterproof, shockproof, dust proof and freeze proof. These cameras can handle any of the elements and bumping around they might encounter; although, the students weren’t told that the cameras were virtually indestructible because we can all imagine what the outcome of that might be! I have one of these Panasonic Lumix tough cameras and it goes with me canoeing, backpacking and is pretty much with me wherever I go. As the students were handed their cameras they ran back to their desks, full of enthusiasm, all ready to learn and play! Roblin taught them how to operate the cameras (the Lumix cameras are all very intuitive to use) and went over some dos and don'ts. When the students heard the words “OK let’s go out and take some photos!”, they could barely maintain their ability to form a straight line. They were about to embark on an exciting creative adventure! 

The first activity of the day was walking to a nearby field to photograph the yellow dandelions, trees and any other interesting subjects that the students might find. Unfortunately when we got to the field we watched as the last bunch of dandelions were being mowed by city employees! Roblin grouped everyone up, explained the rules and guidelines of the activity and then broke the group up into three smaller groups to be supervised by Dianne, John and Ric. The groups then went on their way to different areas of the field. Needless to say, there was no walking but full-on sprinting to their assigned areas! Even though the field was made less photogenic with the lack of dandelion colour, there was no holding them back. They were in bushes, on their knees and would stop at nothing to figure out a way to photograph subjects that captivated their creative minds. Some of the subjects and compositions they found interesting is real proof that sometimes as we age we lose our ability to think outside of the box. It was inspiring to be around so many energetic emerging artists! 

After lunch, the next group of activities included a photo scavenger hunt, nature sculpture and editing their photos.  This session was setup as a rotation where each of the group leaders would take a group of students and run the assigned activity. This was a way to give the students the chance to fit all of the activities into the day. For the photo scavenger hunt, the students were in groups of three and were given a list of things to photograph and the photographs had to be nature-based. It was a great way to practice the think outside the box idiom. The nature sculpture activity was a very interesting concept. Once again, the students were sent in groups of three to go and find tidbits of nature, such as grasses, sand, stones, wildflowers and weeds and create a piece of art on the ground. Some of the designs and ideas were a treat to experience. Once the group had a creation they were happy with, it was photographed by the group leader. It was remarkable to witness some of the intricate designs, patterns and shapes these students had made from scrounged up and assembled pieces of nature that people take for granted and ignore every day.   

The last activity was done back in the library where Roblin taught the students how to cull down their images to their top five using Google Picasa. They were allowed to take a maximum of 50 photos during the day. Undoubtedly there were some who took more than this limit, simply based on how excited they were out in the field. The students grasped the image editing process quickly and completed the selection and editing process in no time. Focus on Nature has a number of laptops that are used to perform the photo editing process on. It was a real joy witnessing the satisfaction the students experienced as they played around with cropping, changing colours and adding special effects to their photos. 

The day ended back in the classroom with a slideshow. For each student, their top five photos were projected in front of the class. If the student was interested, they were allowed to speak to their favourite photo they took of the day. It was precious how many of them participated in this exercise and it was clear how proud they were of their photo accomplishments. Speaking in front of the class also encouraged public speaking skills and general confidence and self-esteem. Listening to some of them reflect on their art was astounding with some students providing somewhat deep and philosophical explanations. 

I had no idea what to expect when I agreed to volunteer for the Focus on Nature workshop. To watch these students know essentially nothing about photography and basic concepts to producing some inspiring photographs and speak to them by the end of the day proved a fundamental point. That point being that we need to continually encourage our youth to always feed and pursue their creative outlets and stay connected with nature. The genuine awe and anticipation these students had when photographing and appreciating all things creative and natural was undeniable. I feel honoured and privileged that I was invited to tag along and enjoy the workshop. I’ve always been a proponent of connecting youth to creative outlets and nature and I applaud Focus on Nature for implementing such an effective program. I urge anyone who has an opportunity to volunteer with Focus on Nature to do so. It is an experience that will inspire you as much as it inspires the students.