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By Karen Hart

Focus on the sense of smell as a starting point for cross-curricular activities.


Sometimes our sense of smell can get a bit overlooked. We recognise the importance of sight and hearing, but is our sense of smell all that vital to us? The thing is, our sense of smell doesn’t stand alone, it tends to affect other areas of our lives – it affects our perceptions and memories of time and place, evoking memories of times gone by, making our experiences feel that little bit better – or worse!

What do smells remind us of?

What’s your favourite smell? Fir trees at Christmas? Freshly baked bread? Or perhaps it’s your mum’s coconut scented hand cream. And what about least favourite smells? There are some smells that some people love and other people hate, such as the smell of petrol or bleach. But some smells are just plain horrible – and we’re all in agreement here; dirty nappies and mouldy food are not good fragrances – why is this? Why do you think we’ve evolved to find some smells bad and some smells good?

Try the following activity to see if everyone in your class agrees on which smells are nice and which smells are nasty!

You will need
  • A selection of substances for children to smell – some nice, some not so nice, and some which depend on individual preference. For example, body spray or perfume, vanilla essence, freshly toasted bread, strong coffee, boiled Brussels sprouts, tinned tuna, vinegar, and raw onion
  • Blind folds or eye masks
  • Cotton wool balls
  • Paper and pens
  • Make a simple tick chart for each child, with substances to be smelt listed in a column down the left side of the page, with space for ticks or crosses on the right side. This can be used to record which smells were popular and which were not Have substances to be smelled ready prepared in dishes so children can help themselves. If using Brussels sprouts or something similar, break these up a bit. Raw onions should be finely sliced and tea and coffee should be made good and strong. Place a few dishes on various tables so children can visit the various work stations without forming queues.
  • Demonstrate how to either dab a cotton wool ball in a dish to pick up some of the substance, or place a little bit on their cotton wool before giving it a good sniff. Children can now visit the various tables working in pairs, taking turns to wear a blindfold or eye mask with partners supplying the substance to be sniffed – allowing children to investigate which smells they like and which they don’t without being swayed by any pre-perceptions. Results should be recorded on the tick sheets.
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