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Seeing, hearing, and smelling the world: Your senses

Cornstarch goop
(18 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
box of cornstarch
mixing bowl and spoon
powdered food coloring (optional)
small trays or shallow bowls

1. Pour the cornstarch into the mixing bowl.
2. Add water to make a thick, applesauce-like texture.
3. Add food coloring, if desired.
4. Pour about 1/4 cup into trays or bowls.
5. Give each child a tray or bowl. Invite children to explore this material. It is dry and hard when you close your hand around it but becomes liquid and drippy when you open your hand.

Sense of smell and taste
Can you taste fear? Do some odors make your mouth water hungrily? Does your favorite food lose its flavor when you have a cold? The senses of smell and taste are complementary: Almost 75 percent of what we perceive as taste really comes from our sense of smell.
The tongue is one taste organ. cover the tongue as well as the roof of the mouth and the throat. Specific receptors on different areas of the tongue allow people to identify four main tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
The other organ that provides information about taste and smell is the nose. from food and in our mouths send information through the passage between the nose and mouth. The information goes to the cells at the top of the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose. These receptors send information along the to the brain for interpretation.
The sense of smell is both primitive and complex. The brain must analyze more than 300 odor molecules to identify a rose. The average person can discriminate between 4,000 and 10,000 different smells. Some odors can awaken powerful memories in adults: a childhood holiday, a Girl Scout campfire, or Uncle George’s automotive shop.

Activities to enhance taste and smell
More than the other senses, taste and smell are highly individual. Help children discover and learn about their preferences with these activities. Talk with children about what they smell. Play guessing games that identify odors. Encourage specific odor vocabulary by offering descriptive words rather than just “It smells good (or bad).”

Smelly bags
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
net material
sewing needle and thread
heavy cord
smelly materials such as banana skin, orange peel, cinnamon stick, rosemary sprigs, rose petals, or whole coves

1. Buy tulle netting at a fabric or craft store. Fine netting is relatively strong and transparent.
2. Cut out 4-inch by 8-inch strips of net. Fold in half to make a 4-inch square.
3. Sew two of the open ends to make a pouch.
4. Fill the bags with a variety of smelly materials.
5. Tie the top of the pouch closed with the heavy cord.
6. For infants, tie a pouch to a mobile or crib gym bar. When the baby kicks the pouch, identify and talk about the material and the smell.
7. With older children, play games with the pouches: Practice sniffing, identify and describe what’s inside, identify while blindfolded, or record likes and dislikes on a chart.
Because this activity is inexpensive and quick to make, it’s more efficient to throw away the bags after a day of use than to dispose of the smelly material and wash the netting.

Gelatin finger food
(6 months and older)
Make your own low-sugar gelatin snack—a perfect finger food for ready babies.
Here’s what you need:
fruit juice
unflavored gelatin powder
boiling water
ice cubes
measuring cup

1. Pour 1 tablespoon gelatin into a bowl.
2. Pour 1/2 cup boiling water over gelatin and stir to dissolve.
3. Add 1/2 cup fruit juice—any kind but pineapple. Enzymes in pineapple juice keep the gelatin from setting.
4. Stir well and refrigerate until solid.
5. Offer babies blocks of gelatin.
6. Talk about the flavor and taste with the children.
Be sure to consult with parents before offering babies a new food, including fruit juices.

Scratch-and-sniff cards
(12 months and older)
Scratch-and-sniff books invite children to identify smells in a story. Make your own scratch-and-sniff cards and make up a story to go with them.
Here’s what you need:
packets of unflavored gelatin powder
ground herbs and spices
white glue
cardboard squares
permanent marker

1. Cut several 4-inch squares from cardboard.
2. Mix 1/4 teaspoon powdered gelatin with 1/4 teaspoon ground spice or herb.
3. Squeeze a small puddle of white glue in the center of the cardboard.
4. Sprinkle the gelatin-spice mixture over the glue. Allow to dry.
5. Write the name of the spice or herb on the card.
6. Invite children to scratch or rub the dried glue. Say the name of the smell and point to the label.

Scented water play
(12 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
water table or trays
flavoring extracts—peppermint, almond, vanilla, or anise
water toys

1. Fill the water table with about 2 inches of water.
2. Add 5 drops of flavoring extract.
3. Invite the children to play in the water as they usually do, but also talk about the water’s scent.

Taste it both ways
(18 months and older)
Coordinate this activity with parents and your program’s food service staff. You may choose to do this as a classroom cooking activity. Make sure all the foods you explore are appropriate and approved for all of the children in your group.
Here’s what you need:
food service utensils such as small bowls and spoons
simple foods that can be served in a variety of ways, such as yogurt, milk, or oatmeal
flavorings such as vanilla, lemon juice, salt, brown sugar, or fruit puree

1. Serve yogurt or other food without flavoring. Encourage the children to taste the food. Talk about the taste.
2. Serve the food again, this time with flavoring. Describe the differences between the plain and flavored foods.
Variation: Offer and compare the tastes and smells of foods that can be served at different temperatures. Try bananas at room temperature and compare them with frozen banana pieces, for example.

Juice mix
(18 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
small paper cups
three varieties of unsweetened juice, such as grapefruit, apple, and orange

1. Offer each child a 1-ounce sip of each juice.
2. Investigate mixing the juices—half orange and half apple, for example.
3. Encourage the children to talk about each of their juice experiences. Offer your own observations like “Janie really seems to like apple juice, but Rachel enjoys the mixed grapefruit and orange juice.”

Sense of hearing and balance
The ear is the organ of hearing and balance. It consists of three parts: outer, middle, and inner.
The outer ear includes the or the cartilage that forms the canals and caves that channel sound to the . The canal is filled with tiny hairs and a waxy fluid that traps dirt. The canal directs sound vibrations to the eardrum, or , a sheet of skin and muscle stretched over the end of the canal. Sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate.
The middle ear, behind the eardrum, is filled with air that comes through the from the throat. The eustachian tube helps equalize the pressure between the outer and middle ear. Three tiny bones, the and link across the middle ear and pick up and magnify sound vibrations.
The inner ear is separated from the middle ear by another sheet of skin, the . The oval window directs sounds to the , a pea-sized organ that looks like a snail shell. The cochlea is filled with fluid and nerve endings. As the fluid vibrates with sound waves, the nerve-ending sound receptors convert the sound to electrical impulses. These travel along the to the brain for interpretation.
In addition, in the inner ear give the brain information about a person’s position in space. These canals are filled with fluid and lined with tiny hairs that are balance receptors. When the head moves, the fluid in all three canals moves as well. When you sit up or twirl quickly, the fluid level rises and falls for a few moments; it takes time to reestablish balance and equilibrium.

Activities to develop hearing
Hearing and speaking skills are intimately connected. Researchers urge parents and caregivers to talk with children so that the two skills develop smoothly. Engage infants in reciprocal or echoed sounds. Mimic the sound the baby makes, and encourage the baby to “answer back.”
In addition to talking with children, sing songs, share finger plays, recite rhymes, read books, and ask questions. Tell and describe what you are doing—and what the baby is doing.

Mobiles with noisemakers
Here’s what you need:
aquarium sand or gravel
elastic, 1/4 -inch wide
plastic eggs
white glue
colored plastic tape
dowel or other rod, or plastic hanger

1. Put about 1 tablespoon of sand or gravel into one half of a plastic egg.
2. Cut 12-inch lengths of elastic. Tie a sturdy knot at one end.
3. Place the knotted end of the elastic over the edge of the egg half holding the sand.
4. Run a line of white glue along the edge and close the egg with its matching half.
5. Let the glue dry thoroughly.
6. For further security, run decorative strips of plastic tape across the egg seam.
7. Tie the eggs to a rod that is secured across a crib. Or attach the elastic to a plastic hanger that can hang over the infant at the changing table or on the floor.
8. Encourage the baby to kick and swipe at the eggs to make noise.
Variation: Tie other noisemakers—spoons, rattles, or bells, for example—to the hanger.
Note: This activity is inappropriate for babies once they can sit or stand and firmly grasp the egg.

Picture file
(newborn and older)
Here’s what you need:
discarded magazines
index cards, 5-inch by 8-inch
file box
file dividers
glue stick
clear, adhesive-backed plastic

1. Cut out photographs of familiar objects from magazines. Include photos of people, food, animals, clothing, machines, and toys.
2. Glue the pictures to index cards.
3. Sort the pictures into categories, and label file dividers accordingly.
4. Cover the cards with clear, adhesive-backed plastic or laminate.
5. Store the pictures in an appropriately sized file box.
6. Use the pictures in your file to reinforce concepts, start conversation, or encourage sorting skills. With infants, hold the baby on your lap and talk about the picture on a single card. With older babies, play name-and-point: You say, “Where is the puppy’s nose?” and the child points. Toddlers and young preschoolers can sort and categorize the pictures in the box.

Follow that sound
(6 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
music box, wind-up toy, or tape recorder

1. Show the baby the music box and make it play music.
2. After the baby associates the toy with its sound, hide the toy under a blanket.
3. Encourage the baby to locate the sound and find the toy.
Variation: Reinforce the following sounds by identifying them: an airplane overhead, a teacher’s voice, and the rattle of the lunch trolley, for example. Help and encourage babies to move and investigate sounds.

Surprise bag
(12 months and older)
Plan to make this activity a daily or routine event. Consider making a cloth bag that becomes a clue to the children that the activity will begin.
Here’s what you need:
household object such as a spoon, toothbrush, or shoe

1. Place a household object in the bag.
2. Gather the children and hold the bag. Say, “What’s in the bag today?”
3. With younger children, pull the object out of the bag slowly. Describe one of its features and ask the children to describe others. With older children, add drama by encouraging them to guess the object by its shape in the bag.
4. Encourage verbal skills by asking how, when, why, and where the object might be used.

What’s that sound?
(18 months and older)
Here’s what you need:
cassette recorder
empty tape

1. Record familiar sounds from the children’s environment: water running, you telling a short story, a toilet flushing, traffic passing, the phone ringing, a door slamming, the vacuum running, and a dog barking, for example.
2. Record 10 seconds of silence between each noise.
3. Encourage children to play a sound and identify its source.
4. For older children, make a more challenging recording. Include the click of a light switch, keyboard tapping, wind blowing leaves, coastal waves, a lawn sprinkler, and the squeak of your playground swing.

Ackerman, Diane. 1990. New York: Vintage Random House.
Anatomy of Hearing and Balance. MedicineNet.
Baldwin, Dorothy, and Claire Lister. 1985. New York: Bookwright Press.
Eye and Its Connections. Neuroscience for Kids. chudler/eyetr.html.
Honig, Alice Sterling. 2002. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
O’Brien-Palmer, Michelle. 1998. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Schaefer, Charles E., and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. 2000. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Segal, Marilyn. 1998. New York: Newmarket Press.
Segal, Marilyn. 1998. New York: Newmarket Press.
Taste and Smell. Newton’s Apple.