Over the last few months we’ve explored the sense of touch and sense of taste with our babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Today I’m going to introduce you to the sense of smell. 

The holidays are the perfect time to learn about sense of smell. Sense of smell is such a memory trigger for me. The smell of banana bread reminds me of my mom’s kitchen growing up – she made the most delicious banana bread and it smelled amazing! The smell of wood cuttings reminds me of my dad because I often helped him with carpentry projects in our garage. Whenever my mom or I cook my Grandma’s brisket recipe, the smell of it cooking reminds me of happy times visiting my Grandparents.

I listen to a Podcast called Science Vs. (If you don’t already listen to it, I recommend checking it out!). They did an episode called: Essential Oils: Science or Snake Oil. I found that episode fascinating. Partially because I had been dabbling in diffusing essential oils myself and wanted to know if there really were any benefits beyond a nice smell (spoiler alert: there are not…), and also because I learned a lot about the sense of smell in this episode. 

They told the story of a girl who was on a family road trip with her mom. She was having the best time of her life with the windows rolled down and they smelled skunk (she had never smelled it before). Her mom said, “I love this smell!”  and from that day forward the girl did too (unknowing the smell was considered repulsive to most people). I thought that story was interesting because it taught me about the connection between smell and our brain – a fun road trip with someone she loved who said they liked the smell made her love the smell too, even a smell that most people would find repulsive. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific truth about the benefits (or lack thereof) of essential oils and other smells, here’s the link to the Science Vs. episode: Essential Oils: Science or Snake Oil? 

p.s. I’m a very scientific minded person, but I still diffuse essential oils in my house despite the lack of health benefits. I just like the way they smell. 🙂

Let’s talk about the Sense of Smell

The sense of smell is called Olfaction. Wow, I just learned a new word to add to my vocabulary. I love how this blog helps me never stop learning (and wondering why I didn’t already know this…or maybe I did once and have forgotten…). 😉

We smell in two ways: by breathing in through our nostrils and also through the back of our nose from our mouth. Our sense of smell helps us detect hazards, food, and pheromones. 

When you sniff in, odor molecules are drawn into the nose. They dissolve in the mucus inside our noses, and then are transported to cilia (hair like structure). The cilia send the signal to our brains to interpret the odor. 

When we chew food, we also smell the food with the back of our noses which helps us determine flavor of foods we eat. Our sense of smell determines the flavors of foods beyond the five tastes. Think of flavors such as spicy, mint, and vanilla. These don’t necessarily fit into one of the five tastes, and that’s because they are flavors, which are detected by our sense of smell. This is also why sometimes cold food seems less appealing than warm food. The warm food has a stronger aroma that tells your mind that good food is nearby. 

There is a great website called Fifth Sense created to promote awareness for and support people who do not have a sense of smell. I learned so much about the sense of smell on this site, and it was my main technical reference for this article. One thing that really caught my interest is when they discussed how you would describe a smell, like roses for example, to someone who has never smelled? I really could not find the right words: at first I said fresh, sweet, floral, but if you’ve never smelled anything would these words make sense to you? Could you find the right words to describe the scent of a rose?

Today I’m presenting three fun and simple experiments to introduce your babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to their sense of smell. In Learning about our Noses your child will do just that: learn all about their nose in an interactive, no materials required activity. In What’s that Smell? your child will close their eyes and try to identify items based on smell alone. In The Flavor of Food your child will learn how their sense of smell influences the flavor of food.  


Learning about our Noses

This is a great silly experiment to learn all about our noses for everyone from babies to adults! 

Materials needed:

  • You and your kids
  • Mirror

Safety:

You and your children may be touching your noses with your fingers in this experiment. Make sure your hands are washed and clean before beginning the experiment and also wash them again after finishing the experiment to prevent the spread of germs. 

Procedure:

  1. Wash hands
  2. Sit or stand in front of a mirror. 
  3. Touch the tip of your nose and tell your child this is your nose
  4. Show your child your nostrils and tell them that they have two nostrils
  5. Play around by trying these things with your child to help them learn more about this body part:
         A.  Can you plug your nose using your index finger and thumb to close  the nostrils?
         B.  Can you scrunch up your nose?     C.  Can you move your nose left and right?

    I had to move my lips to move my nose, lol!


         D.  Can you flare your nostrils?
         E.  Can you sniff?
         F.  Can you blow air out of your nose? Is the air cold or hot?
  6. Dangle a clean tissue in front of your child’s nose
         A.  Ask them to blow air out of their nose – the tissue will move away from their nose

    It worked best when I demonstrated first…


         B.  Ask them to sniff – the tissue will move closer to their nose

What happened:

Your child learned all about their nose. We use our nose to breathe, smell, expel unwanted particles (through sneezing), and it helps our speech. We can move it and because of it’s prominent position on our face it is one of the most defining features on most people. Our noses are important because they allow us to smell, and it’s wonderful to teach your child to love their nose no matter it’s shape or size. 

For more information about your nose, I recommend the Wikipedia article about the Human nose.  


What’s that smell?

In this experiment you will introduce your child to their sense of smell by having them smell (with their eyes closed) some strong-smelling items and also some unscented items. 

This experiment is appropriate for children age 1+. Younger children may not want to close their eyes, and that is perfectly ok! All children will enjoy smelling the items (and guessing what the items are if their eyes are closed). 

Our sense of smell relies heavily on brain interpretation of the scent. Everyone interprets smells differently, and a smell I find pleasant, such as coffee, may be repulsive to my children. It’s important to try not to push our personal feelings about the scent onto our child and rather to let them decide how they feel about the scent on their own. 🙂

Materials needed:

  • Blindfold (optional)
  • 3-5 items with a  strong scent that your child will know (examples: mint, coffee, warm pizza, hot chocolate, popcorn, flower, orange peel, candle, essential oil)
  • 3-5 items without a strong scent (examples: water, paper, cell phone, book, clothing)

Safety:

Be careful not to get the items too close to your child’s nose to prevent them from inhaling the items through their nostrils.  

Procedure: 

  1. Blindfold your child or ask them to close their eyes
         A.  For babies: skip this step
         B.  For toddlers : blindfold works well if they can’t keep eyes closed
         C.  For preschoolers: closing eyes is recommended
  2. Place the first item under your child’s nose and ask them to inhale and smell the item
  3. Discuss the smell with your child
         A.  For babies: Show them what they smelled, tell them the name of it, and describe the item (for example: “you are smelling a rose, it is a flower that is known for its appealing, strong, sweet floral scent.”)
         B.  For toddlers: Ask them to tell you what they think they are smelling? Then discuss the item with them as in step 3A. 
         C.  For preschoolers: In addition to step 3B, ask them to describe the scent (do they like it? Is it a sweet, fruity, floral, spicy, clean, or strong scent)?
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 with all the items

    I used a mitten for our first unscented item. The kids thought it was so silly. “Mom, you tricked us!”

What happened:

Your child learned about their sense of smell. They discovered they needed only their nose to be able to identify some items (like coffee, orange peel and roses), and for others items (like water and paper) they need to use their other senses (such as sight, and touch) to help identify the item.

As your child learned, we all interpret scents differently. My son enjoyed the smell of fresh rosemary from our garden, but my daughter did not.

Some foods, like chocolate and coffee, for example, have a stronger scent when hot then cold. My kids preferred the smell of hot brewed coffee over coffee that had gone cold in my cup.    


The flavor of food

This experiment will combine the sense of smell with the sense of taste that we discussed in our last Exploring the Five Senses post.

This experiment will teach children how the sense of smell helps them distinguish the different flavors of food (which are not the same as taste).

This experiment is appropriate for babies through preschoolers. Babies can taste everything and enjoy your interaction.  Toddlers and preschoolers should be able plug their noses and guess the foods. 

Materials needed:

  • Blindfold (optional)
  • 5 small bites of food (examples: sliced fruit such as banana, apples, oranges, blueberries, bread with peanut butter, chocolate, cheese-flavored crackers, etc…)

Safety:

Choking hazard – whenever our children eat choking is a risk. Make sure the foods are small and that the children know to chew well before swallowing. If your baby does not have teeth yet, use only soft foods or purees. 

Procedure:

  1. Ask your child to plug their nose
         A.  For babies: skip this step, or if they are ready you can plug their nose for them
         B. For toddlers: plug their nose for them if they have trouble doing it themselves
         C. For Preschoolers: they should be able to plug their nose themselves
  2. Blindfold your child or ask them to close their eyes
         A.  For babies: skip this step
         B.  For toddlers: blindfold works well if they can’t keep eyes closed
         C.  For preschoolers: closing eyes is recommended
  3. Place the first food in your child’s mouth.
         A.  For babies: spoon a small piece or puree into their mouth
         B.  For toddlers: ask them to open wide and place the item on their tongue
         C.  For preschoolers: hand them the food and instruct them to place it in their mouth
  4. Ask your child to tell you what food is in their mouth
         A.  For babies: tell them what the food it and describe the flavor (for example: “you’re eating an apple, it is sweet, crisp, crunchy. Your sense of taste tells you it’s sweet and your sense of smell distinguishes the apple flavor”) 
         B.  For toddlers: Did they get guess right? Follow up with discussing the food as described in step 4A. 
         C.  For preschoolers: In addition to 4B, can they identify which of the 5 tastes it is? (you can review the 5 tastes in my Sense of Taste post)
  5. Add in some Sense of Touch fun by asking your child to move the food around in their mouth and try to describe the texture (ex: an apple is hard, banana is soft and squishy, grape is round and smooth, etc..)  
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 with all five foods
  7. Ask them to unplug their nose and repeat steps 2-6 was it easier to identify the fruit without their noses plugged?

What happened:

This experiment teaches us how sense of smell often plays a huge role in identifying the flavor of foods. Without our sense of smell, you will know you are eating an apple, but with your sense of smell you can tell the difference in flavor between a gala apple and a pink lady apple.

In this experiment the children are forced to let their tongue decide what the food is and if they like it or not. Once my son learned it is more difficult to taste the flavor of food with his nose plugged, he said he will try plugging his nose when eating foods he doesn’t like in the future. 😉


My kids and I loved learning about our noses, smelling items from around our house, and tasting the flavor of foods. 

The in the next post for the Exploring the Five Senses for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Series we will explore sense of sight. I rely heavily on my sense of sight and my worsening vision sometimes scares me. I am looking forward to learning more about this critical sense, and it will be fun to let my children learn more about how their eyes work. 

Did you learn something new about the sense of smell after reading this post? What is your favorite scent? 


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