How My Teaching Background Influences My Photography:

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This week, I’ve been thinking lots about why I tend to make photographs of families and children being active and doing rather than sitting and looking/smiling. There are three reasons for this:

1. My background in education & child development

2. Personal parenting philosophies

3. Photography preferences.

I’m going to share a series of short articles about how my teaching and my parenting philosophies influence my photography.

My Background in Education & Child Development

I went to school at The Pennsylvania State University for two undergraduate degrees: one is a Bachelors of Arts in Art where all of my creative coursework was in photography and the other is a Bachelors of Science in Art Education, where I learned much about art history, art philosophy, and theories and practices of education. Some of my favorite courses were in art philosophy and art theory. This is where I began to learn about why we create or have a desire to create and about the best circumstances in which we create, which centers around play.


Typically when we hear the word “play”, we have some associations. Many think, “Play is something that children do” (and some might add “to learn”). Others may think, “Play is for children (and sometimes for adults that do things like play video games, sports or board games.” If you were to consult an online dictionary, you would find something along the lines of, “engage in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Synonyms are about self amusement, self enjoyment, having fun, and entertainment. But, play is so much more intricate than just relaxing. Play is one of the most important things we do as children and adults.

Artists Who Use Play

Oliver Herring

Some of my favorite artists work around the concept of play. Oliver Herring is among them. Oliver creates artmaking sessions called TASK parties, where visitors write an art task on a slip of paper and put it into a box labeled “TASKS.” Visitors also take a task out of the box, which they must complete. Tasks are creatively interpreted and then performed. Some people might be watching, but most people are simultaneously interpreting and performing their own tasks. Sometimes these become a group effort. The whole room is filled with creation. When you have finished your task, you place it into the “Completed Tasks” bin. Oliver speaks about the importance of play in an interview with Art 21: PBS. Oliver says, “Most people are much more unusual and complicated and eccentric and playful and creative than they have the time to express. Play: It's a thing that we put on hold because we get distracted by so many other things. We have to make money. We have to pay the bills. We grow up. And these roles that we play, they’re not real. But after awhile, they become real. They become us. Play is sort of a reminder of what that was like to be a kid. And we, in the end never lose that I think it's always there. I mean you carry your past inside you, that’s clear. So why should it ever disappear?”

Want to know more about TASK?

See his work & interview here.

Olivia Gude

Olivia Gude is an educator and longtime inspiration to me. She centers lessons around play for these reasons: Her research (and others) have found that the conditions that foster creativity (and therefore learning) are psychological safety and freedom. Psychological safety includes concepts of accepting that the individual has unconditional value, creates a condition in which external evaluation is absent, and in which empathetic understanding happens. This creates a mental freedom in which a person is comfortable exploring. Play also needs to be truly free. Gude said in a National Art Education Presentation in New Orleans that “Such play must be truly free, not directed toward mastering a technique, solving a specific problem, or illustrating a randomly chosen juxtaposition”

Read more about Olivia Gude’s art education philosophies

Our Brains

Our brains relax when we are psychologically safe to explore. Other research suggests that alpha waves are more present in our brains when we are relaxed. Did you ever have an idea come to you in the shower - or when you are drifting off to sleep? Play also creates these altered electric brain waves. This allows us to make connections, find things we lost, or be creative. This is important for both children and adults and their well-being.

See a bit more on brain waves here

This is a tiny smorgasbord of concepts on play. The basic premise is that we are allowing our brains to relax, without expectation of producing something specific, but in the process, amazing connections and learning and joy can happen. Its pretty amazing!


How does this relate to my photography? I think play is the most natural state for children and is the center of our best memories as a family. I would prefer to hang a wall portrait of my child with a natural expression of joy rather than a seated portrait smiling through gritted teeth. When my children are happily playing inside, that is when I feel peaceful. When my children are being themselves and exploring the world through play, I get to see what they are experiencing and guess what they may be learning. That zeal for life is something I will always treasure for my family.

I have found that those natural expressions of joy happen more readily when I create a situation where children can play and explore or where a family can make a memory. My job is to record what is actually naturally happening. Don’t worry. I’ll still be glad to pose your family and give you a beautiful timeless portrait. But, I always like to make sure there is a bit of time left over for kids to relax - and that is where we make magical memories that you’ll treasure in a different way!

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