The Power Of Play

When asked what you remember about childhood, what first comes to your mind? I usually think of how magical it was to play. I was a kid with a broad range of interests and not at all concerned in any type of stereotypes the world might have liked to impose. From pretending to be an Egyptian princess, mothering my baby dolls, riding my bike through the neighborhood on quiet summer afternoons, conquering the west in a log cabin (front porch), turning a card table over to raft down the Mississippi, turning jar openers into guns (to my mother's distress) -- through it all I was free. Play was a safe place where I could explore the world, and retreat from anything that was overwhelming. Play shaped my heart, inspiring me to be the person I am now as an adult. While I don't exactly want to grab some guns and go join a band of pirates, I do have a strong determination to overcome obstacles that stand in my way, for example.

Throughout the years of photographing children, it's always a joy to see how they come alive through playing. I've abandoned lofty ideas of an extensive closet of props or plump velvet chairs for the sake of specializing in documenting playtime. It's amazing how much children transform when you invite them to play. One little girl who I photographed was hiding behind her mom and was peeking around at me with a skeptical eye. I invited her to a game of hide and seek and suddenly she was running around, smiling endlessly, laughing, and making sure I counted ALL the way to ten while she found a hiding spot. We later explored, looking for bunnies and the Lorax throughout downtown Indianapolis. As I watch little personalities unfolding in front of me, it's impossible to try to stick to a list of trendy poses. I'm drawn in to the beauty of the sincere expressiveness bursting forth from kids. I want to fill up the frame with their faces (the face is the best art in the world), or document how they are interacting and existing in their environment.

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I always encourage parents to bring favorite toys to the session. I love the texture toys give to images. I could get a stock pile of toys myself, but I prefer for my bitty subjects to bring their own. Children are more relaxed when there's something familiar close at hand. The little boy in the images below brought his toy cars to the session. We started out playing with them on a sidewalk that had a little ledge next to a lawn. As the cars rolled over the edge I made a CRASH sound, which he found incredibly amusing. I then told him: "hurry, save them quick!" He would burst into laughter, run to pick up the car, and then send off another one. I loved the bright pop of color the cars added to the images, and was also very excited at the ways I found to photograph him from above, showing how he was playing. His mom messaged me the next day to tell me that she thought I was his new favorite person; he had told her, "I need to go play with Ashlee today." My heart melted.

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This little guy turned 6 months old, and celebrated with a photo session. I asked his parents to bring some stuffed animals along. While I was taking his picture, he held his frog and began chewing on its eye. I kept snapping away because it was adorable. I prefer to document life the way it really happens. Babies don't just sit and hold stuff -- they chew on everything. It's things like chewing on frog eyeballs that make babies so charming. It's those things that make up the kaleidoscope of a parent's memories of their baby. Who wouldn't want to photograph that?


While I don't stockpile toys, I do have a couple of things I keep up my sleeve that have novelty and grab attention. They're not fancy, but the results they give are priceless. I keep what's actually a dog toy in my bag at all times when I shoot (I usually forget to take it out of my purse afterwards and can be heard squeaking in the grocery store). It's a bright pink cow with green spots that makes a loud, attention grabbing squeak. At the same six month old session I brought it out, and this was the reaction:

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Toys aren't necessary for play, of course. At this session we pretended to be princesses. She needed a frog, and so a leaf was the proxy. Her mom texted me afterwards telling me how much fun her daughter had at the session. Again, my heart melted.


My first time photographing twins was amazing; it's one of my favorite memories. This pair was adorable. It was also a session without toys, so we made use of their adorable sunglasses, did some gymnastics, and turned the camera itself into a game -- another one of my secret tricks for images. While the resulting images were relaxed, there's also a sort of elegance to the images that I love. As I said, I love filling up the frame with faces, so having two littles one peeking into my lens at once was doubly grand.

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Silly faces are another thing I like to utilize. Smiles are nice, but they can get a bit repetitive, as can the "moody" serious faces. So sometimes I just can't resist requesting a cheek smash. :)


I'm a huge fan of costumes. I absolutely love when clients come to the session with costumes for kids to wear. Did you know I've photographed Batman and Puff the Magic Dragon? It's true.

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Playtime is powerful, both for children and as a form of art. In photographs, play is evocative; it's heartwarming, and it harkens an idyllic time when life was simple, authentic, and free. I hope that through my adventures of documenting the play of children that I create something that, in the future when they remember that magical time of childhood, helps draw them back to that magical time more deeply than memories alone.