When Liam turned 4, the grandparents had a shiny, blue camera for him. And this was no toy. It was the stuff of big boys - a real-deal, Kodak digital camera.

My son, Liam, takes his birthday wish list quite seriously. Once Christmas is over, he knows the next holiday that involves substantial gifts is his June birthday, and he's not shy about letting me know what we should add to the list. He carefully observes the words I write down, reminding me, in case I've forgotten, that "Bat cave" starts with "B." "Camera" was the most talked-about request on last year's list, and sure enough, when he turned 4, the grandparents had a shiny, blue camera for him. And this was no toy. It was the stuff of big boys - a real-deal, Kodak digital camera. Liam commenced snapping pictures of his younger sister and began a superhero still-life series. But when I began cycling through the shots, there was one odd, hilarious constant: his feet. Every few pictures, Liam took close-ups of his bare feet. There were toes on the stairs, on his bed, on the couch, on the wood floors, on the carpet. Toes, toes everywhere. The good news is Liam hasn't developed an early-onset toe fetish. "As adults, we grow accustomed to what we look like," said Dr. Kevin Arnold, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus. Children ages 6 and under are still processing "the concept of me being permanent," he said. "They're learning to master the idea that even though things can be different - whether a girl wears her hair up or down, for instance - they're still the same," Arnold said. "Pictures feed into that idea." When Bexley resident Jonathan Kelly's daughter Kate was 3, she discovered the camera on his iPhone, taking full advantage of the feature that allows her to "switch" the camera lens and easily take pictures of herself. "[My wife] and I will get our phones back and randomly check our pictures and there will be 30 new pictures of Kate's face," Kelly said. In a 3-year-old, it's not a sign of narcissism, Arnold said. In fact, developing that sense of self-identity is important. As children get older, they'll likely use a camera in different ways. Heather Gott of Clintonville remembers when her oldest son, Connor, got a camera for Christmas when he was 9. "He started taking pictures of all the presents he got, very documentary-style," Gott said. "Then he started to itemize his playroom. He took pictures of individual items or sometimes a grouping, but he covered a lot of the toys that they had in the playroom." This, too, corresponds with the stages of child development. From ages 6 to 10, "being able to master things and develop skills becomes more important," Arnold said. "They like to build something out of Legos and have it look exactly like the box. They develop collections and get into not only having things, but cataloging them, and the more complete it is, the better." Kids in this stage often enjoy taking pictures on vacation as a way to catalog and remember their experiences. Gott remembers a trip to Boston in which Connor would watch her set up a shot, then step in front of her and take the same shot she had just taken. Memory, Arnold said, is "poorly developed until pre-adolescence, so pictures can help kids develop a more firmly held sense of personal narrative." At its most basic level, encouraging photography is a way to give your child a sense of excitement and accomplishment. We forget that, for a kid, it's a thrill being able to take a picture of something, Arnold said. We understand photography on deeper levels, but a kid can push a button and, like magic, an image appears. Remember, too, that just because your child has taken an interest in photography at an early age doesn't mean you have a budding Ansel Adams on your hands. Let the skill develop naturally without being pushy or controlling while also providing help for little hands when needed. Liam's photos reside in an online gallery where, by merely clicking through it, I can know him better. I can see the world through his eyes as he tries to make sense of his surroundings. And I can see what's important to him - even if it is his toes.
Photos by Liam Oliphint, Kate Kelly and Connor Gott