An Overview of Focus on Nature

Shakespear, Mark, Jeji Varghese, and Rosanne Morris. (2020) ““We Are Nature”: Exploring Nature Conceptualizations and Connections through Children’s Photography.” Children, Youth and Environments 30 (2) 1-29. Accessed October 30, 2020. doi:10.7721/chilyoutenvi.30.2.0001.

“Digital cameras have the ability to engage and excite children [and] [t]hey have the potential to impact a dimension of connectedness to nature…”
(Spencer, 2012, p. 57).

Inspired by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, Shirley Hunt, co-founder of Focus on Nature (FoN), saw a need to get her own children and their peers connected to nature. Seeing a broad social need, and with input from the community beginning in 2008, FoN was conceived and co-founded with Guelph photographer Trina Koster.

A core driver of the organization is the belief that connections to nature help create a healthy, flourishing planet. (Louv 2012, Sampson 2015, Williams, 2017). FoN sees a critical role for the arts in fostering these connections. As Hunt says: “One of the main goals of the FoN workshops is to inspire children to become connected to an appreciation of nature: an appreciation that in the long term will invite children to be ‘life-long’ stewards of the environment.” Its mission statement is clear: “FoN inspires young people to explore and connect with nature through photography. ”

FoN was launched in 2008, to be followed by the creation of an advisory group and volunteer base, research and grant-writing, and running and evaluating pilot projects.  By 2011, the pilot project was supported with the help of a $60,000 Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) grant and $8,000 from the Ontario Arts Council. Today (2019), FoN receives grants from the OTF to support expansion in two regions, as well as receiving support from various foundations and community sponsors. Recognizing the limits of school budgets, it is understood that FoN program costs will be covered by government grants, corporate sponsorships and fundraising. As a result, FoN operates as an incorporated non-profit, charitable organization, facilitated by an Executive Director; governed by a Board of Directors; with Regional Program Managers in Guelph, Waterloo, Halton, and Hamilton, Ontario. “Photography is so accessible for young people today… It gives kids new ways to appreciate nature and opens up new windows of possibility in their lives.” says Simon Bell, Executive Director.

Designed to align with the Ontario Arts Curriculum for grades 5 and 6, FoN workshops have been well received in classes from grades 3 to 11, including high school specialty arts programs. Every workshop is led by an experienced Lead Instructor and a team of Program Assistants who bring all equipment and materials needed to make a FoN workshop a rich learning experience. Thanks to government grants, business donations, and community support, workshops are offered for a per diem cost. Since inception in 2008, FoN has delivered over 773 workshops in the Guelph-Wellington, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Halton Regions, and is expanding further across the Province of Ontario, reaching over 20,000 children to date in 146 schools.

A FoN workshop is a full-day experience delivered in a dynamic, interactive format. Students are given the opportunity to practise what they learn in nearby parks in small, adult-led groups.  Included in the workshop program: interactive talk/slideshow covering the Elements of Design, composition ideas, and the basics of using a digital camera; a morning adventure walk to a nearby natural area, including a hunt for the 7 elements of design in nature; nature awareness and sensory activities such as building a nature sculpture and a photo scavenger hunt; photo editing and individual slide shows of each student’s top shots, including a discussion of their favourite image. Guided to wander through natural landscapes with a camera and a specific task, kids slow down and look more closely at things they might not ordinarily notice; they appreciate the wonder of nature; and they connect with their creative potential. Children are taught that visual language can help them explore and describe the natural world. Direct instruction about the elements of design (e.g., line, shape, form, space, texture, tone, colour, hue, saturation, brightness and rule of thirds) are reinforced throughout the day. “Shoot Close Up For Impact” (SCUFI)–is a skill that is taught, designed to inspire the children to create beautiful images. Extension activities are provided to the classroom teacher after each workshop. Children engage more deeply as nature photographers, and share their work with the larger community long after the workshop has ended.

“Focus on Nature invites students to disconnect from some of the technology that is ubiquitous in their world and to discover their voice and their vision through photography in nature. Given that it is a one-day immersive workshop, the results have been astounding.
The Director of Education for Waterloo Catholic District School Board, Loretta Notten

Click to view an infographic of the CESI Report.

The FoN program delivers experiential learning opportunities for young people to acquire creative, technical and critical skills in photography, enabling them to use this medium as a tool for exploring the natural world.  FoN strives to enhance the physical and emotional well-being of children by providing them with meaningful experiences in the outdoors.  Children are taught how to “see” the beauty of nature through the lens of a digital camera; and how to connect with nature while appreciating their own photographs of the natural world. A goal of the program is to foster in young people a genuine interest in, and appreciation for, nature as a key step toward long-term environmental stewardship.