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Seeing, hearing, and smelling the world: Your senses

Two 12-month-old babies sit on a thick quilt on the floor of Ms. Rolen’s playroom. Jessie is mouthing a plastic book. Jacob is banging two aluminum pie plates together. Suddenly, both children turn to the window.
“Did you hear the garbage truck?” Ms. Rolen asks them. “Let’s go look out and watch what it does.”
For Jessie and Jacob, the world is built on what they can perceive through their senses—touching, seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling—and by moving through their environments. Today their brains are transforming sensory information into a knowledge base. By the end of their second year, these babies will have enough hands-on knowledge to move to the next period of development—one rich in symbols and other mental abstractions.

•  •  •

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget described the time between birth and a child’s second year as the period of development. Developmental periods are sequential and orderly; a child must be competent in one stage before going to the next.
During Stage I, newborns rely on their reflexes—grasping, sucking, and startling—to build a system of knowing. For example, a nipple brushed against a newborn’s cheek will cue that infant to turn toward the brush. When the nipple brushes the infant’s lips, it cues the infant to suck. Both are survival skills.
In subsequent stages, babies learn to coordinate their reflexes into organized patterns. For example, the baby integrates the sucking reflex into a stomach-satisfying, emotionally sustaining relationship with a caring parent or caregiver. Events that were once accidental become more deliberate: The baby will practice and repeat a pattern to recreate the pleasurable outcome. Reflexive and accidental movements eventually become intentional. For example, an accidental swipe of a rattle produces a pleasurable sound. To re-create the sound, the baby must practice. When successful in hitting the rattle, the baby is rewarded by the desired sound.
By toddlerhood a child’s sensori-motor experiences have built a complex network of cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and language skills. For example:
“If I bang these pans together, I can make noise.”
“If I can hear the music playing near me, the music box must be close at hand.”
“I will learn more about an ice cube if I can taste it as well as see and touch it.”
“If I hold my dad’s finger, I can learn about its size, shape, hardness, warmth, and gentleness—and I can make my dad smile.”

Sense of sight or vision
In people, the eyeball is a multi-layered organ that receives and focuses images and sends those images to the brain for interpretation.
Light enters the eye through the a hole in center of eye. The colored surrounds the pupil and opens or closes to allow more or less light into the pupil. In poor, dim light the pupil is broad and the iris open. In bright sunlight the pupil is a tiny pinpoint and the iris closed. The is a transparent, nerve-rich tissue that covers and protects the front of the eye.
On the inside of the eyeball, behind the pupil, is a transparent that allows light to travel to the . The lens bends or refracts light and can change shape in order to focus. The retina is a layer of tissue lining the back of the eye. It’s made of nerve endings that are light receptors called photoreceptors. Photoreceptors absorb and convert light into electrical signals that carry information to the brain through the optic nerve. There are two kinds of photoreceptors: 1) —125 million that distinguish light and shade in dim light, and 2) —6 million that distinguish color.
Two pockets of transparent fluid nourish the eye and maintain its shape. The is the clear, watery fluid of the anterior or front chamber between the cornea and the iris and pupil. It maintains pressure and nourishes the cornea and lens. The is a clear, gel-like fluid in the back of the eye. It maintains the eye’s shape and cushions the retina. Three pairs of muscles hold the eye in place and control eye movement.
Internal and external structures help protect the eye. The eyebrow and eyelids filter and obstruct grime, moisture, and other foreign matter. The lids, like shutters, can close fast. They also blink to keep the eye lubricated. Internal secrete a salty lubricant, tears, to wash the eye naturally.

Activities for visual development
Like all sensory development, visual learning relies on hundreds of trial-and-error and discovery experiences. Try these with the babies in your care.

Pattern pictures
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
permanent markers
ruler or other straight edge
clear, adhesive-backed vinyl

1. Cut cardboard into large, 7- to 10-inch squares.
2. Use markers that contrast in color to the cardboard.
3. Draw simple designs on each card. Simple faces, checkerboards, crossed lines, spirals, and circles will attract the attention of infants.
4. Cover the cards with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminate.
5. Place the drawings around the environment at children’s eye level—in a crib, on the floor, on the tray of a highchair. Point to the lines and encourage the baby to follow your finger along the design.

Mirrors everywhere
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
unbreakable mirrors
mirror hangers

1. Make sure mirrors reflect clear images. Some polished, metal surface mirrors distort features.
2. Hang the mirrors in all areas of the classroom including the changing table and a wall at floor level.
3. Use a large, framed mirror on the floor for tummy time and crawling practice.
4. Talk with babies about what they see in the mirrors.

Shadows and sunlight
(6 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
colored cellophane
transparent tape

1. Cut large squares of colored cellophane.
2. Tape the cellophane to windows that get direct sunlight.
3. Track and talk about the colors produced. For example, point to the red cellophane, the red spot on the floor, and your red hand.
Variation: Use colored light bulbs in a protected floor lamp.

Photo books
(6 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
mini photo albums (often on sale at drug and variety stores for less than $1 apiece)
discarded magazines
glue stick

1. Cut out theme-specific photographs of common, familiar objects from magazines. Look for animals, toys, foods, and faces of people.
2. Place the photographs in the albums. Label the album according to the theme.
3. Share the album with children. Talk about the photos and encourage children to respond to your words.
Variation for older children: Put some of the photographs in the album upside down. Talk about directions (up, down, top, bottom) —and giggle at the funny pictures!

Far and near
(6 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
small colored object, such as a 4-inch red ball or stuffed animal

1. Show the object to the children.
2. Let the children examine the object up close.
3. Place the object far away—the other side of the classroom or outside a low window where the children gather.
4. Challenge the children to locate the distant object.

Picture activity match
(12 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
discarded magazines
glue stick
clear, adhesive-backed vinyl

1. Collect two photographs of a variety of activities. One photo should be a clear, close-up image of a familiar object. The second photo should be of that object in use. For example, find pictures of a toothbrush and a child brushing teeth, a puppy and a family building a doghouse, and a shirt and a child dressed in a shirt and pants.
2. Cut the cardboard into 10-inch squares.
3. Glue each picture onto a square.
4. Cover the pictures with clear, adhesive-backed vinyl or laminate.
5. Challenge the children to study the individual pictures. Then ask them to match the correct pairs.
Variation: Collect photographs of each child and photographs of each child’s family. Encourage children to match their individual photo to their own family.

Color frames
(18 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
sheets of colored cellophane
sheet of foam core
craft knife
wide masking tape
ruler or other straight edge

1. Use the craft knife to cut the foam core into 8-inch by 12-inch pieces.
2. Cut out a 4-inch by 8-inch piece from the center of each rectangle, making a 2-inch wide frame.
3. Cut the cellophane into 8-inch by 12-inch pieces. Heavy acetate report covers available at office supply stores are inexpensive and durable.
4. Tape the cellophane sheets onto the backs of the frames.
5. Encourage the children to hold the frames and look at a “colored” world through the cellophane.

Sense of touch
The skin is the largest organ in a human body. The skin is rich in —nerve endings that pick up information and send it to the brain for interpretation. The skin responds to five varieties of touch: light pressure, heavy pressure, pain, heat, and cold.
While receptors cover the entire surface of the skin, they are more concentrated in some areas. For example, the lips are receptor heavy, which explains why babies mouth objects to learn and most people find kissing pleasurable.

Activities that explore touch
Far beyond the sensori-motor stage of development, most older children and adults rely on the sense of touch for safety and information gathering. Some people are highly sensitive to texture—especially in clothing—and pain receptors alert us to developing injury or infection.
Help children explore the sense of touch with these activities.

Texture blanket
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
washable fabric scraps in a variety of textures: corduroy, satin, fake fur, rough-woven burlap, cottons, woolens, knits, and synthetics
discarded flannel sheet or quilt
sewing thread and needle
wide, satin blanket binding, available at fabric and craft stores

1. Cut the fabric scraps into pieces at least 6-inches square. Larger pieces offer babies more space to explore.
2. Determine the size of your blanket. Cut the sheet to this size. Or, if you are using an old quilt, plan the spacing of the texture blocks.
3. Sew the textured pieces to the backing fabric.
4. Sew blanket binding to the four edges of the blanket.
5. Allow the children to explore the blanket during tummy and floor time.
6. Wash the blanket often.
Variation: Make a texture smock for yourself. Sew textured fabric scraps to your classroom smock or apron. Talk about the textures with the babies you hold over your shoulder or in your arms. Encourage the babies to touch and stroke the textures.
Variation 2: Make bottle covers or cozies from textured fabric scraps. Cut the scraps into 6-inch by 4-inch rectangles. Sew the two long ends together to make a snug sleeve for the bottle. Encourage the baby to help you hold the bottle at feeding time.
Variation 3: Make texture stacking boxes. Collect cardboard boxes in a variety of sizes. Cover each box in a textured fabric, and offer for investigation and construction play.

Feel the breeze
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
oscillating electric fan
lengths of ribbon

1. Buy or borrow an oscillating fan. Make sure the blades are covered with a fine grille, and place the fan out of children’s reach.
2. Cut the ribbons into 6-inch lengths.
3. Tie several ribbons to the fan grille.
4. Turn on the fan and help the children eagerly anticipate the breeze that comes and goes.
Variation: Use your breath to create a breeze for babies. Blow gently across the baby’s back, neck, legs, or tummy. Avoid puffs of air to the baby’s face.
Variation 2: Use a feather or large yarn pom-pom to stroke the baby’s skin.

Ice cube play
(9 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
ice cubes
food coloring (optional)
highchair with tray

1. Freeze cubes or other small shapes—colored or not.
2. Offer ice for play to babies sitting in highchairs.
3. Talk with the babies about cold, melting ice, and water puddles.

Sticky walk
(12 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
roll of adhesive-backed vinyl
wide duct tape

1. Cut a 3-foot length of vinyl.
2. Peel the paper off the adhesive side.
3. Tape the sheet to the floor—sticky side up—along all four sides.
4. Invite the children to explore sticky feet.
Variation: Take barefoot walks indoors and out in areas that are hazard-free. Help children experience cool tile, soft rugs, bumpy gravel, squishy mud, wet sand, and hard bark mulch. Encourage exploration with hands and arms as well as legs and feet.

Feely bags
(18 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
cloth bag or discarded pillowcase
collection of familiar household objects

1. Buy or make a cloth bag. Often book publishers and school supply merchants offer these free at conferences and meetings.
2. Place three or four common objects—hairbrush, shoe, spoon, and book, for example—in the bag.
3. Invite children in turn to reach into the bag and identify the object without looking.
4. Rotate the objects often. Encourage the children to play the game with each other.
Variation: Put pairs of objects—two hairbrushes, two shoes—into the bag. Ask the children to identify and pull out each pair without looking.