Snapping photos of the people and things around us is a great way for a young child to learn. Cameras can foster creativity, promote attention and concentration, and provide a vehicle for learning more about science and even developing language when used for specific activities. On the other hand, they can just be fun as well.
The question for many parents is at what age should I give my child a camera? The answer is two part. First, it depends on the child and second, it depends on what type of camera you're talking about.
A preschool child who is capable of caring for their toys and belongings with care and is able to focus attention for more than a minute or two is certainly capable of handling the kids cameras that are designed with a sturdy build, sure grip, and only basic functions. They are affordable so that if they do get broken, it won't be a disaster. Of course these cameras won't turn out the highest quality photos but they are often adequate for the youngest kids although many kids beyond 5 years of age would probably want something more mature.
Disposable cameras can be appropriate for kids as well. They are affordable, simple, and don't have the "baby" look of the cameras described above. Some preschoolers can handle them but certainly you wouldn't want to hand one to a child who might place small objects in their mouth. These cameras are much more fragile but produce much better pictures. A child might be ready to use one by the age of 4 but other kids might need to be a bit older.
The age at which a child can handle a traditional point and shoot camera still depends upon their level of maturity and experience with cameras. Allowing your child to handle one with supervision will certainly give you a good idea if they are ready. Providing them with a hand-me down or one of the many digital cameras under $100 that are available might be a good start. The first camera can be simple but certainly having a flash for indoor shots as well as zoom and a macro mode for getting some different types of shots are important. Keeping the cost down will minimze the loss if the camera is broken or lost, but will also allow you to justify the expense if your child want's an upgrade in a couple years if their interest in photography takes off.
School age kids will benefit from learning responsibility in caring for their camera and enjoy downloading, editing, printing, and sharing their photos online. By the tween and teenage years, any camera is appropriate depending upon the interest level of the kid. Basic point and shoots are fine for most kids this age, but some are more enthusiastic and even digital SLR cameras can be approriate for them in these instances. Of course many kids love sharing things online and shooting video, so cameras that provide easy sharing features and good video are sometimes high on their list.