Senses Science: What’s That Smell?


“Ewwww. I smell broccoli!”

“Mmmmmmm, cookies.”

“Finley’s stinky!” (Actual quote.)

Smell is one of the five ways we learn about our world, along with sight, sound, taste and touch. For most animals, their sense of smell is their sharpest. It helps them hunt, find out where they are going and locate family members. Human noses are not quite as sensitive, but we can still detect more than 10,000 different smells!

For scientists, their five senses are important tools, whether they are studying animals in the field or creating new chemicals in a lab. Here’s a fun activity to help your budding scientist hone his or her sniffing skills.

What you need:

  • 3 or more small containers (Note: We used test tubes from Learning Resource’s Primary Science Set.)
  • Cotton balls (for liquids)
  • Smelly stuff: citrus peels, herbs, spices, coffee beans, vinegar etc. (Just make sure whatever you are setting out is safe to sniff. Avoid harsh chemicals.)
  • Handkerchief or blindfold

What you do:

  • Put a little bit of smelly stuff in each test tube.
  • Blindfold your child and hand him or her each test tube in turn. (Note: Sniffing coffee beans in between each test tube can help cleanse the nose’s “palate.”)
  • Ask questions: What does it smell like? What does the smell remind you of?
  • Challenge your child to guess what’s in the test tube.

A good extension would be to have children record their observations and guesses in a science journal. Younger children could draw pictures of their guesses instead of using words.

Do you want to learn more about your sense of smell? Check out these kid-friendly links:

9 thoughts on “Senses Science: What’s That Smell?”

  1. What a cool experiment! I’m pretty bad at identifying smells, I think. It’s interesting though, what you mentioned about smell being the sharpest sense in animals… we had a dog who was epileptic. She would have terrible seizures and when she began to recover she was blind and unbalanced and would panic. But if I held my hand where she could smell it, she would calm down right away. Smell was obviously the first sense to return, or possibly was never completely lost.

    1. Now you are reminding about an article I read about introducing your dog to a new baby. You were to bring a blanket that the baby had been swaddled in in the hospital. It was to help the dog get to know the baby before baby came home. Interesting stuff!

    1. It’s a lot of fun when you close your eyes and try to use your other senses. I sometimes challenge the kids to close their eyes outdoors and tell me what they smell and hear.

  2. That’s a fab idea, Kristen! My son has recently shifted from full time spy to include being a scientist also, this is perfect for him. Thanks!

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