Smell may be one of our most overlooked senses, the one we usually comment on only when something stinky is in the air. But it's also an invaluable tool in our sensory arsenal: We rely on it to boost memories, amplify emotions, and maximize our sense of taste. Nose around these simple experiments and activities with your kids — they're guaranteed to pass their smell test!
Smell and Go Seek
Test your kids' power of odor detection by spraying a washable object, like a clean sock or towel, with a strong scent (perfume or room deodorizer works well). While your child closes her eyes and counts to 20, quickly hide the sock in the room—and see how long it takes her to find it by using her nose as her guide. For an extra challenge, blindfold your child, guide her around the house, then see if she can tell where she is just by the smells in the air. Since our noses quickly grow accustomed to familiar odors, she'll have to pay close attention to discern the lingering scent of spaghetti that tells her she's in the kitchen, or the hint of detergent that says laundry room.
Blind Taste Test
To make the point that your sense of smell is closely linked to your sense of taste, try an old-fashioned taste-test as a mini-science experiment. Blindfold your child, have him plug his nose, then see if he can taste the difference between foods with similar textures. Try apples vs. raw potatoes, orange soda vs. lemon-lime, banana yogurt vs. strawberry, purple jelly beans vs. green. Keep track of his guesses as you go. Then have him take a stab at identifying the flavors simply by smelling them. Which was easier? Did he get more right by taste or by smell? How does our ability to smell things affect our ability to taste them? The takeaway: Without a sense of smell, everything would taste pretty much the same — one reason it's no fun to eat when your nose is stuffed up.
Make a Memory-style card game that relies on your child's sense of smell. On 3x5 index cards or pieces of cardstock, swab on a thin patch of white glue. While it's still wet, sprinkle on a powdered herb or spice, such as cinnamon, pepper, or the more exotic coriander or Spanish paprika. Each spice should appear on two cards, with at least twelve cards total. To play the game like Memory, shuffle the cards and lay them upside down — then challenge your child to find the matches. Although appearance will offer a clue, make sure you smell each card. (Don't be surprised if your child comments on the presence of basil or oregano in your next meal!)
Studies have shown that your sense of smell can enhance your working memory and evoke long-ago experiences — one reason a whiff of bonfire smoke instantly transports you to your childhood summer camps, or cinnamon rolls make you think of your grandmother. Play up that memory power by helping your kid create a scent scrapbook. Talk about the smells that remind her of happy times and beloved people — like the waxy new crayon smell that makes her think of preschool, or the scent of strawberries that reminds her of her favorite snack. Afterward, use a small notebook to create your own scratch-and-sniff scrapbook by spritzing on a perfume or essential oil, gluing on bits of spice, or attaching plastic bags with small bits of the item (like a handful of backyard dirt). After a bad day, inhaling some of her favorite smells can instantly boost your child's mood.
DIY Stink Bomb
Kids love this one! For the old-fashioned method, use a long needle to prick a hole in an egg. Place it in a ventilated container -- like a shoebox with holes punched in it — and wait. Within a couple weeks, bacteria will have broken down the egg's protein, producing the hydrogen sulfide that creates the classic (and awful!) smell. Release the horrible odor by breaking the egg; just make sure to do it somewhere outside, far away from houses and humans who'll be stuck smelling it!
Know why dogs have such an acute sense of smell? They have between 125 and 200 million olfactory receptors — the cells that detect scents — compared to the 5 million that humans generally have. To see how sharp your little bloodhounds' noses are, fill a few small lidded jars with different strong scents — a cotton ball soaked in perfume, a 1/4 cup of vinegar, some vanilla, and so on. With your kids standing about 15 feet away, remove the lid from a jar and see who can identify the scent first. Playing around with the variables by diluting the vinegar, moving your kids farther away, or doing the experiment outside can provide different results and lead to some interesting discussion. May the best snout win!