It’s Child’s Play
One of the single hardest things to overcome in many professions is getting an over (or sometimes under) -stimulated child, between 3 and 6 years old, to cooperate with you on a working level. Children can be easily distracted, scared and excited. Often they become bored or frustrated when asked to perform tasks that do not engage them and capture their attention. This can be especially difficult when dealing with photography where children are often asked to remain still long enough to capture the shot. Additionally, the expression on their little faces needs to be sweet and endearing, not demonic. Children can look ornery, mischievous and even angry, if the look is appropriate for the shot. Otherwise, a “Princess” scowling, just comes across as “the Spoiled Step-Sister”. To say the least, understanding how to work with children is as vital in photography as it is in many other industries.
Lucky for me, I am one of those blessed people who actually LIKE working with children. I find that it is a rare adult that is as genuine, kind hearted or understanding as a child. Many of the children I have met in my years working with children have taught me that children can be capable of so much courage and hope that it is enough to render me speechless (which say’s A LOT)! But, you have to know how to inspire them or it can be a nightmare for everybody. So here is a countdown of the top 10 techniques I have used to engage children’s minds and encourage their cooperation. Really, it’s not hard, in-fact It’s Child’s Play!!
10) Share the Calm! Energy is good, but it should NEVER be nervous energy. Nervous energy is like a sugar rush. You get lots of smiles, and excitement and bouncing, but when it’s over the crash can make it more miserable than it was exhilarating. Nervous energy releases stress hormones, which include all kinds of chemicals like adrenaline. These are the same chemicals we all produce to trigger a “fight or flight” response. When nervous energy is used, that individual’s mind may be saying “Have fun!”, “Get a little wild!” or “Cut loose!”, but their bodies are saying, “Danger!!! Be ready to run!” Most children don’t have the maturity to understand this and can suddenly go from happy and excited to fretful, and uncooperative.
So, be happy, be energetic, but FIRST BE CALM! Remember, it’s not a roller coaster. Now, take a big breath, smile, reach out a welcoming hand, and say hello.
9) Make a Battle Plan!! One of the reasons kids balk when given directions is because they want to feel like they have some say in what they do. Allowing a child to have some input time can save a TON of time later! 5-10 minutes is enough to tell the child what you want to do, and ask them if they have something they want to try too. Then, take turns. Try your idea, then one of theirs. As long as their idea isn’t dangerous, why not?
8) Get a Little Silly!!! A great way to add a little fun into any activity is to add a little “silly” to it. So you want to get them to be quiet. Well, making faces doesn’t make noise!!! Practice going back and forth between silly faces and other more natural expressions. See who can come up with the silliest! Playing this game with children is a great way to let them express themselves, and learn to control their facial muscles better. Besides, some of those “silly” faces make CUTE pictures! Don’t worry; they won’t really get stuck that way. This exercise also gives them the skills to develop a great poker face! Beware the Poker Face! The only look more disarming is the “Puppy Eye”!
7) Offering a Reward doesn’t always have to be something tangible. Perhaps the reward is something as simple as getting to do an activity of their choosing after they finish yours. In photography, I use this trick more often than any other. For example, we have both a stuffed dog and a stuffed bear. I’m not talking about little ones. They are something like 3-4 feet long! When I go to a shoot, I try to bring them both. I then ask the child which they like best. I DON’T let them do more than pet their favorite at first. (PS: they are reeeeally soft.) After each set, I remind them that “the last set we take will be with their favorite stuffed buddy!” Then, after I’ve got all the other shots we want, I pull out the stuffed buddy of their choice and they get to cuddle it. This works, nine times out of ten and kids can play with him while the adults look at the pictures and talk collections. Don’t think of it as a bribe… more like a negotiation. Warning, the first time you back out on your end, or you have to take away that reward, it’s all over, and you will have triple the trouble getting them to cooperate afterwards.
6) Work a little, Wait a little. You’ve heard of the old phrase, “Hurry up and wait”. Well it’s wise to plan on a similar approach when working with kids. Rarely you will run across that child who has an attention span long enough to build a rocket in one sitting. More often than not you are lucky to get the parts sorted before most kids are ready to do something different. One thing you find in common among those few that have a longer attention span is that they are able to take a large, complicated project and split it up into multiple smaller activities and work their way through to the end. This technique works with ANY child if you use it right. Start off telling your 5 year old what you are going to ultimately be accomplishing. (Build a robot, make a cake, clean the house, whatever.) Then show them a list (best if this is pre-made before you talk to them). Don’t put too much detail in your list. Try to keep your list to less than 10 steps. Work through each step together, taking breaks between, and complimenting the child on the steps you’ve already finished. I use this a lot when teaching my kids to cook. By reminding of what you need to do next, as well as what you’ve finished together you help them “own” a sense of accomplishment along with you.
This technique also helps children learn to organize their thoughts and actions so that they can get tasks completed more efficiently. The trick is not to let the breaks become longer than the activities and to return to the tasks as laid out in your original plan. It’s okay to vary it if needed, but the more consistent you are the easier it will be for your child to participate.
5) Make Believe is a lot of fun! Some people never get tired of make believe. Look how popular Comicon Conventions, Renaissance Festivals and LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) Sites are if you need proof. Find out what a child is interested in, and get whatever that is worked into the exercise, and you won’t be able to get them to stop! “So, you don’t want to clean your room? Well let’s attack aliens together and exile them to the worm hole in the toy box!!!” Or: “Oh! You don’t like to sit and take pictures? No problem! You sit there and we can have a tea party together! Would you pour me a cup of tea while I guard the camera from squirrels?”
4) “OH NO! Don’t Get Me!” To a child this is a serious thing! Until it’s the big scary grown-up pleading with THEM not to “Get Me”! Now it’s a game. Many kids are fearful of letting their guard down. If a child is afraid to let you touch them to adjust their position or show them how to do something like how to hold a fork, pretending that you are afraid of them can be a great way to make them feel empowered and ultimately to relax. When you show someone that you are afraid of them, you are giving them power. When a child is timid and nervous already, it is usually because they feel vulnerable. Encourage them to feel powerful, and you will get them at the very least, to not shy away from you when you approach them. Whatever you do, be respectful of their space and choices when it comes to whether it’s okay or not to touch them. This applies in ALL cases, even if it’s just on the arm.
3) Show Me How. The fastest way for a child to learn how to do something is to be shown how, and to imitate. So, you need your child to put on a jacket, but they don’t want to. Try to put on your jacket wrong, and when it doesn’t work, ask them to show you how with their jacket. Perhaps you need them to sit with their legs crossed. Sit down with them and cross your legs (if you can). If you can’t ask them to show you how THEY cross their legs to see if THEIR way works better for you. Worst case scenario you still can’t cross your legs and you all have a good laugh about your inflexibility.
2) What is That Thing?! When working with equipment, tools or other “scary looking” technology, children can often start off being afraid of the device, or becoming bored with the novelty of it when it’s least convenient. When this happens the child will usually refuse to cooperate at all or will be “muley” when they do. If the equipment isn’t dangerous to the child, let them touch it, look through it or interact with it when it’s NOT in use. I often let children look through my camera view-finder. If they are careful with the camera, I will sometimes offer to let them push the button to take a picture of their own. This is a great way to help occupy a child while photographing their parents. Not only do the parents LOVE the idea of their child getting a free lesson in photography, but the child is obviously safely preoccupied while the parents try to pose for the shot! In this way I combine this technique with technique #6 – OFFER A REWARD.
1) Play is Sometimes Just Play!!!! Kids are hardwired to play. Play is how we all learn. We learn how to use sounds to make words by playing with our tongue and lips and babbling happily with others as babies. We learn better balance, by challenging each other to run across the rail the fastest. We learn how to say our ABCs by singing. (Singing is just another form of play to a child.) Try to force a person to memorize the multiplication table and it’s miserable for them. Challenge them with flash cards and a well-developed points system and it becomes fun! The list goes on forever. Getting a child to play with you on any level is probably the single most effective thing you can do to obtain their full and undivided cooperation. It never fails… I always get that one little, tired, 3 year old baby boy who only wants to sit and glare at me, no matter what I do. Give him a paper-ball and get “knocked-down” by it when he throws it back, and suddenly the sun isn’t as bright as his smile! Usually, if you can break through that initial emotional barrier, you can work with a child to accomplish any number of difficult and frustrating tasks.
With the beginning of a New Year schedules are changing and parents are looking for convenient, experienced professionals who are good with kids. As parents and care-givers we are always looking to find ways to make our lives a little better and motivate our children to grow, express themselves and learn to work with others. Photography is a fun way to work towards all these goals. A good session will leave your child feeling empowered and optimistic about who they are and comfortable with their own self-image.
Green Screen Sessions are a great way to spark the imagination and not only have all the benefits of a good session, but also to get those creative juices flowing. This is something that standard school mug-shots fall desperately short of! Why just get a head-shot, when you can let your child go to the Jurassic Era, or Ride a Magic Carpet? Green Screen Sessions can let your child truly explore who they are, what they like and who they want to be in life. Remember, pictures are worth a thousand words! Let us be the ones to work with your child and capture that story for you to share with your family for generations!
Note: The techniques discussed in this release are encouraged for use in working with children towards legal, wholesome and moral goals. Unfortunately there are people out there whose only goals, when it comes to children, are nefarious at best. We are appalled by this behavior and do everything in our power to protect our children and those under our care.
By: Sarah Whitscell
Written Exclusively for Southern Moon Photography, LLC
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