The Importance of Drawings and Photos

You can enhance youth’s observations of the natural world by having them make frequent use of visual representations created through drawing and photography.


Skill Level

By the time youth reach middle school, they have develop attitudes about drawing that either help or inhibit their motivation to draw. By this time, some students have become quite skillful in their rendering of natural objects; others have developed an aversion to drawing; and some will not even make an attempt, even when encountering the simplest of objects. When this latter group does make attempts, the resulting drawings can be highly schematic and lacking in detail. It is this type of youth that will need special attention. You will need to plan out a way of getting them started and providing simple steps to keep them motivated to make further attempts. Part of the solution is to develop a group culture where there is mutual respect—a culture in which youth have agreed that they will not criticize others’ drawing efforts. There are also ways of providing a sequence of supporting structures that can help these reluctant youth become more confident about their drawing where they reach a point that their drawings have more detail and information. Below are resources you can consult to help you with this sequence and structure.

Leslie, C. W. (n.d.). Guide to sketching trees. Retrieved August 3, 2009, from
Leslie, C. W., & Roth, C. (2003). Keeping a nature journal: Discover a whole new way of seeing the world around you. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

Various approaches have been taken to address the problem of the inhibited youth. Having youth do a group drawing where all in the group add something to the drawing takes away from having to do the whole drawing alone, which can be overwhelming for some youth. Another approach is to have youth take a comic-strip approach. They are asked to make very simple drawings in a series of frames that reports an observation or changes that have occurred in the organism they have been observing.

Regardless of youth’s skills, it is still challenging to get them to realize the need and usefulness of drawing. Given that the activities are happening in an out-of-school context, youth may feel that drawing is only something to be done as a requirement such as often happens in the school context. You need to develop a group culture and an agreed-upon approach where youth realize that drawing is a way of getting better acquainted with a natural object, so that it becomes an automatic practice. This can be fostered by setting up an overall context where youth are encouraged to wonder and generate questions during their field trips and while setting up indoor investigations.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Drawing is useful because it gets youth to look closely at something and focus their attention. They need to be paying careful attention in order to record the details of what they are seeing through their drawings. Disadvantages of drawing include that some youth are inhibited to draw, and also, it is very challenging to capture the minute details of a plant, or specifically a flower, in a drawing. And when studying changes over time, it’s far easier to do this using photography. But drawing has its place in capturing the natural world.

Digital Photography

Advantages and Disadvantages

Middle school youth are relatively comfortable around technology these days, and for them, digital cameras are usually easy to operate. Inexpensive cameras have features that can be very useful for capturing the natural world, such as the macro function, which allows youth to take clear, detailed pictures of close-up subjects, such as of pond organisms and the inner parts of flowers, and the camera’s zoom function, which enables youth to get a closer view and then take a photo of far away objects, such as branches high on a tree.

Providing cameras can greatly enhance youth’s observation of natural objects. Their availability can add to youth’s wanting to join and continue to participate in an extended project. In most of the activities, suggestions are given for types of photos that youth can take. Youth should be encouraged to use the cameras to start an inquiry where they take photos to answer a question they have generated. For instance, during the field test of this project, one boy became interested in the health of a tree. He encountered one tree he thought was dying. He decided to take photos of the bark of this tree over several weeks to see if the bark would be an indicator of the tree’s health.

Below are some other ways of taking advantage of the capabilities of digital photography:

  • In the fall, leaves on some trees change color. Capturing this change in drawings can be challenging, but youth can take a series of photos over time that will show which parts of the trees change first and how long the leaves stay on the trees after changing color.
  • If youth take a photo of a whole tree, they can then zoom in on that photo once they view it on a computer to observe the different branching patterns of trees in relationship to the overall structure.
  • Youth can take a collection of photos of different kinds of bark. They can then view the collection all at once using the computer, allowing them to easily compare and contrast the images.
  • Youth can take a collection of photos of trees in the winter. In the computer, they can then easily compare branching patterns of the different trees.

However, digital cameras also bring with them disadvantages. Given their ease of use, youth will tend to spend their time only take photos and rather than taking the time to closely observe the subject of the photo. Also, photos have much more information to process than drawings, so you will need to help youth decide what to focus on.


You will need follow-up with youth about the photos they have taken during their field trips. The photos should be uploaded onto a computer, some selected for sharing and discussion, and a few printed. How you carry this out will depend on the number of computers you have available and how much time you have in each session.

If there are lots of computers available, each group can upload their photos and make selections. If you only have one computer, you should upload the photos from each group or youth at the end of the session (if your session is long enough, as the process takes time), after the session, and/or during the next session. Once photos are uploaded, you or the groups will select those photos you will print and others you will discuss as well. Youth tend to take lots of pictures, some of which are not relevant to the particular focus of an activity; therefore, develop with them some criteria for selecting the photos to be discussed and those to be printed.

Have an organized presentation where each group shares a few photos with everyone. Use this situation to have them focus on specific features of the living thing they have photographed. These discussions can be a particularly fruitful time for generating questions or developing explanations since the youth have a personal interest in the photos.

Discuss with the youth which photos they would like to print and place in their journals, and once they have been placed in their journals, have them write about those photos.


Drawing is more than the recording of what one sees; it is a way for youth to focus their attention and organize what they are observing. Photographs can also provide very useful documentation, recording and capturing details that are particularly challenging to show in drawings. However, if cameras are available, one might be tempted to totally rely on photographs to record what is being observed. Their use can short circuit close observation, particularly if there is no discussion about the photos. Because of the advantages and limitations of each approach, it is good practice to use both media (if possible) while trying to achieve some balance between the two.