As you stroll through the essential oils aisle at your local shop, you may pass by jars labeled with promises of “focus” and “clarity.” We adults could certainly use those qualities from time to time, but what about kids — will a whiff of a pleasant scent help them focus on homework or get clarity with long division?
While aromas alone won’t help your child ace a test, they can make learning more engaging for him, and certain kinds may even boost his memory. It’s easy and inexpensive to incorporate smells into the learning experience through essential oils, scented stickers and markers, and everyday objects like fragrant flowers. (If your child has allergies or breathing conditions like asthma, check with a doctor before trying aromatherapy.)
Here, three experts share their unique perspectives on how smell affects learning for kids — and how you can take full advantage of it.
A scent researcher says: Rosemary, sage, and peppermint aromas may boost memory.
Although more studies are needed to fully understand the effects of aromas on learning, fascinating early research has found that rosemary, sage, and peppermint scents may help your child remember things more clearly.
A 2017 study of 40 schoolchildren found that those who played memory games in a rosemary-scented room received higher scores than those who played them in an unscented room. The researchers selected rosemary based on previous research showing it can help improve memory in adults, says Mark Moss, Ph.D., study author and head of the psychology department at Northumbria University. In other studies, Moss found that peppermint and sage also enhance memory in adults.
“The effects you see in adults in certain studies are quite likely to be found in children as well,” says Moss. “Active chemicals in essential oils are absorbed into the blood and can reach the brain, where they may exert actions on systems associated with memory.”
At home, try adding rosemary, sage, and peppermint essential oils to an aromatherapy diffuser when your child is learning something new or working on homework. (If you don’t have a diffuser, add drops of essential oil to cotton balls and allow to evaporate.) “It’s something that’s easy to do, reasonably inexpensive, and a pleasant way to possibly improve performance with almost no risk,” says Moss.
Book Pick: Unstinky. Teach your child about the world’s many vibrant scents in this hilarious tale about a stinkbug named Bud who stinks at stinking contests! When other bugs make icky smells like the outhouse, a gym sock, and an armpit, he ends up smelling like flowers, fresh-baked bread, or candy canes! In the end, this sweet story teaches how to follow your nose to happiness.
An education expert says: Choosing scents is a little way to empower your child.
Yes, really! Think about what you do when you need to tackle a big project: You might play soft music, sip a cup of coffee, or put on your comfiest slippers. Just as these little things make your work more enjoyable, allowing your child to personalize her own work environment can enhance her learning experience.
“Anything parents can do to provide additional agency to their child, in which the child gets to use decision-making during an activity, is going to empower that child,” says David Timony, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and chair of the education department at Delaware Valley University. “If you go to the store, you could say, ‘Let’s pick one essential oil to use when we study.’ Regardless of what the scent is, engaging the child in planning can be really beneficial for learning.”
As a result, she may start taking self-direction in other ways, like deciding where she wants to sit or how she approaches homework. And in general, whenever scents are part of the environment — whether it’s via essential oils or even scented markers — it can make learning more enjoyable and engaging for kids.
“It gives them a positive association with what they’re doing,” says Timony. “The more positively students talk about their learning experiences, the better attitudes they’ll have toward learning in the long-run.”
Book Pick: Klutz: My Super Sweet Scented Sketchbook. Make learning how to draw even more fun and engaging for your child with this delightful doodling workbook, which comes with four fruity-scented markers to bring drawings of sweet snacks, cute critters, and more to life.
A child neuropsychologist says: Aromas can prime your child’s brain for learning via mindfulness.
Certain scents can put some students in the right state of mind for studious activities, says Daniela Montalto, Ph.D., a child neuropsychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital. Experiment with what helps your child calm down and settle in for learning.
“A soothing or familiar scent can ease anxiety and help students get into a clearer, more mindful state for learning, which can aid in the storage of information,” says Montalto. “They may also start to associate certain scents with particular experiences, which can facilitate memory recall.”
But to fully reap the benefits scents have to offer, go beyond essential oils. Expose your child to aromas throughout his environment to boost his knowledge about the world. For instance, ask him to smell a flower at the park, or to take a whiff of his cinnamon roll at the bakery.
“Mindfully attending to the scents and smells in the environment leads to a greater appreciation for the world around us,” says Montalto. “It also helps to increase the attention span of young children. It allows them to have a pause in their experience and take in more of what they’re being shown than they would have on their own.”
Book Pick: David Smells! When his nose picks up a particularly pungent odor, David discovers his sense of smell for the very first time — and delightful adventures follow! This charming board book introduces your child to the five senses as David explores each one, all while colorfully encouraging curiosity and exploration.