How to Develop the Sense of Smell for Kids?

Parents teach their toddlers about the primary colors of red, green, and blue, but they might not think about the primary odors such as floral, mint, and musk.

Angelle Button from New Tampa, Fla., encourages her 2-year-old son, Kody, to stop and smell the roses. But her motivation at first was more about protecting her flower garden from her curious toddler. “He loves to smell flowers,” Button says. “I taught him that two months ago. Now, whenever he sees a flower he goes up to it and smells it. I have a bunch of flowers in my flower bed and instead of pulling them, I taught him to smell them.” She also encourages her son to smell scented candles and soaps.

How We Smell

Experts say it is important for parents to engage their toddlers in sensory play activities to develop their senses, including smell. If your toddler has a reduced sense of smell, it could indicate they have a mild zinc deficiency or a cold.

Through his sense of smell, a toddler knows his world and is alerted to danger, according to Jackie Silberg from Kansas City, Mo, a workshop leader and author of books on childhood development, including Reading Games For Young Children (Gryphon House, 2005).

Experts say people can distinguish more than 10,000 different smells through olfactory receptor neurons lining their noses. Each receptor is encoded by a different gene, which recognizes various odorants. If your toddler’s DNA is missing a gene or if the gene is damaged, it can cause him to be unable to detect a certain smell.

When Button’s son smells flowers, he is smelling the esters, or organic molecules, evaporating from the flowers. Esters can now be made artificially. Although manufacturers produce diapers, toys, and crayons for toddlers with artificial scents, Silbert suggests exposing children to natural smells.

Smelling Games

Silberg recommends parents play what she calls “smell games” with their toddlers to help develop their sense of smell. “The sense of smell plays an important role in our sense of well-being and quality of life,” Silberg says. “The sense of smell brings us into harmony with nature, warns us of dangers and sharpens our awareness of other people, places and things. Almost everything has its very own smell.”

One game is a “smell pictures” game. Let your toddler cut out pictures she likes to smell and paste them onto a piece of construction paper. “Talk about the pictures and use words to describe the smells: sweet, strong, bad, good,” Silberg says. She says that parents may also take old jars and fill them with different items such as lemons or cotton balls soaked in vinegar, peppermint, or vanilla extract.

Banana chunks, cinnamon sticks, peanut butter, coffee grounds, and onions also make good choices for toddlers who can close their eyes and guess what they are smelling inside the jars.

Another game for 12- to 24-month-olds is to identify smells around the house. “Take your child for a walk around your house and identify the different smells in your house,” Silberg says. “You would just be amazed by what you could find. It makes the child more aware of his environment.”

She says your toddler should notice the kitchen has distinct smells, such as the smell of cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. “Give them descriptive words and let them tell you what odors fit into the words,” says Silberg.

Children who develop their sense of smell enjoy pleasant scents and recognize danger, such as the smell of smoke. “All of these things are also developing literacy, listening skills, language skills, cognitive skills, motor skills, social skills, all the developmental skills important for toddlers,” says Silberg, adding that toddlers learn through play. “You could tell a child something 50,000 times, but when they play it and experience it, then they understand it.”

Parents can help their toddlers understand that some things are the same and other things are different by comparing smells. For example, hold a piece of lemon under your toddler’s nose and then give him a piece of pineapple. “Then you let them taste the lemon and pineapple,” she says. “What are you really doing besides exploring the sense of smell? You are developing their sense of difference and the same.”

Because most children relate to animals, including animals, in the learning experience, Silberg suggests comparing the size of different animals’ noses and talking about how some insects do not smell with their noses but with their wings.

Sensory Learning

Diane Trister Dodge, president of Teaching Strategies Inc., a publishing and training company based in Washington, D.C., and the author of Preschool for Parents: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Preschool (1998, Sourcebooks, Inc.), says toddlers are “little scientists” who explore with their senses.

“Infants and toddlers learn through their senses,” Dodge says. “A young infant is going to put everything in their mouths. That’s how they get a sense of what the object is. It’s by hearing things, by touching things, smelling them, exploring them [that] they understand the world.”

Dodge believes the primary sense for children is the sense of taste, which is connected to smell. “I just spent two days with my 18-month-old grandson, so I’m an expert on 18-month-olds,” Dodge says. “They will explore for a huge length of time. If you watch them, that’s the way they learn is by exploring objects. That’s how the connections in the brain are made between brain cells, and that’s what builds their brains.”

She says it is important for parents to show an interest in everything their toddler does. “When you are feeding him food, talk about how it smells,” Dodge says. “You expose them to different experiences and describe them and talk about them and put words to them.”

Part of what makes people feel alive is their ability to smell flowers, the ocean, or fresh-cut grass. Through sensory play, your toddler will know all the primary smells and more to interpret life’s colorful and scented canvas.

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