SCENTsational activities to develop sense of smell

Numerous researches show time after time that engaging all kids’ senses helps their brain development. And their curiosity! There are so many toys that offer bright colors, wild sounds, interesting textures… and we have the whole kitchen pantry to taste. It is the smell that usually goes forgotten and ignored. It is no less important. And it is so easy to set up an activity to provide smell sensory stimulation… that every single one of my boys, in turn, enjoyed it from baby age and we’ll through early school years.
General idea is simple: fill the bottles with interesting smells, set them up on a tray and get started.
Having kids of different ages who like a great variety of activities, I set up two trays.
Super Easy Olfactory Tray

  • a tray
  • spice bottles. Pick any ones you like. These are the ones we have right now:
    basil, coriander, rosemary, garlic, nutmeg, parsley, mustard, ginger, paprika, turmeric.
  • Whenever one of my numerous spices bottles on a kitchen counter runs out, I bring the leftover bottle to our Olfactory Tray. Garlic, ginger, turmeric, paprika have such strong smells, that even spice residue on the walls is enough to elicit strong response for years. For basil and parsley I dried a few leaves, wrapped them in a gauze pad and stuck inside a bottle. For mustard and coriander – I keep a few seeds wrapped in a gauze pad.
  • flameless smell disks
  • I stopped by the Yankee Candle store and picked up about 5-6 of those smell disks. 9 years later, they still work! Try picking simplest smells: we have orchard pear, mango, ekaliptus, pine. Those are ok. More complex ones, like Apple pie and Autumn Fruits don’t really remind of anything specific. The trick: I store them in a ziplock bag. And I also don’t have very high expectations with them – the point is to provide stimulation, not to teach specifics.
  • cards with the names of the spices

1. Just smell! I used to take my little ones (pretty much as soon as we settled after coming home from a hospital) to the kitchen cabinet and let them poke their curious little noses into something interesting! Spices, bread loaf, fruits – everything is exciting to a brand new little baby who is just getting used to the world around him.
2. By toddler years (and still!), all of them LOVED staying in mommy’s arms and pointing to interesting looking bottles to smell. Vinegar smells too strong, vanilla doesn’t remind grandma’s cake at all, but cinnamon does smell yummy!…
1. These guys are ready to enjoy the Olfactory tray. They really enjoy opening the bottles, sticking their noses inside, putting it back. Again. Now the disks. “Ohhh, smell mommy, smell this! – constantly goes my two year old!
2. I tried to show the cards, line them bottles together, but at this stage they all just enjoyed the interaction with the grown-up looking bottles.

These are ready for the cards. Smell the bottle, try to match the smell (or name on the bottle) with the name on the card. Line them up together. Clean up! That’s quite a feat for a little guy.

School-age kids
They love teaching the little ones, sharing this experience, providing demonstrations, and are surprised that familiar smells are found in a bottle.
Matching Olfactory Tray:

  • tray
  • even number of empty bottles, about 12.
  • I purchased mine a while ago in some Montessori store; you can often find them in a craft store.
  • If you have any, baby food jars work excellent for this activity!
  • cotton balls dipped into or wrapping around some interesting and smelly. We have:
    toothpaste, coffee, cinnamon stick, couple of drops of vanilla, coriander seeds, lemon drops, my favorite fragrance
  • cards with the names of the spices (optional)

Babies, Toddlers
Still smelling. More interesting smells to investigate.
Preschoolers, Older Kids
Matching. I add each smell into two bottles. The bottles should have either different colored lid, or put a different stickers on the bottle, or just tie different colored ribbons. Kids have to smell bottles and find it’s pair.
It is much harder than it sounds, but really a lot of fun!