Smells and Literacy: 7 Ideas to help Children Think about Language – by using their noses.

I had a conversation with someone this week, after they'd read my previous blog post about helping children to be better at listening.


Children use all of their senses’ she said.  She went on to say that I should have included a range of activity ideas to include some of the other senses too.

She was right; sensory experiences that are set up in a way to help children think more precisely can build a richer vocabulary and provide creative ideas that can enhance the quality of children’s descriptive language and, in turn, their writing.

So - I’m taking up the challenge and aim to put out ideas based on different senses over the coming weeks.

Let’s start with the Sense of Smell.


Here are 7 Ideas to get started:


  1. Have children explore a range of spices or other food ingredients.  They could do it blindfolded but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

What words would you use to describe what you smell? What does it remind you of? Does it paint a picture in your head of a place / person /event in your life?  What can you see?  Who is in your picture?

(some children will inevitably say something like ‘It’s horrible’ – you’ll need to challenge them to think of a description – rather than they just give an opinion – i.e. why do you say ‘horrible’? – What do you mean? Say some more and give reasons….


2.  Do this one blindfolded or have substances in covered jars. Put in some ‘unusual’ smells that children might not encounter at such close quarters:  e.g. paraffin or shoe polish. Encourage them to make some creative connections:

If this smell were an animal which would it be?

If it were a machine?

If it were a character in a story?

If they represented a colour – which one?

Give children two different substances to smell and ask them to compare and contrast them. What are the main differences between the thoughts they provoke?

E.g. sour / sugary / light and airy / dark and gloomy


3.  Describe some smells in under 5 words (or phrases) that are not directly linked to how it looks. E.g. leather smells – warm, hairy, like an animal, comforting, protective…..  Here are some other ideas for ‘smell starters’ – felt tip pens, bleach, petrol, just washed piece of clothing, vanilla essence, coffee.


4.   Make lists of ‘Good smells and Bad smells.  What makes a smell ‘bad’ and vice versa?  Are there some smells that everyone does or doesn’t like?  Which are the ones that cause the most disagreement?  Why do you think that is?


5.  When you go out for a walk or out to the shopping centre  - make it into a ‘Smell Detection Walk’. Draw a rough map of where you go and plot the different smells you encounter on it. See how many different ones there are.  Which is the nicest place to be in terms of the surrounding smells?


6.   Smell your family and friends.  See how strong your sense of smell is in relation to those people you know well. Collect some items of ‘just worn’ T-shirts or tops from family and friends and whilst blindfolded – can you identify the person from sniffing their clothes?


7. Plan a smelly story. Make a list of 5 smells at random (or use pictures) – E.g. newly cut grass, petrol fumes, strong perfume or after-shave, a wet dog, flowers and jelly babies. Use them in whatever order you like to make up a story. E.g. ‘Going to the park – man sat on a bench with wet dog… something then happens (child decides) that results in him running towards a van that has had its engine running for some time….. and so on.  How many different stories can you make with the same set of smells?


P.S  I’m not suggesting that children are made to write something after doing every one of these activities – but they could be followed on with a piece of short writing occasionally - as an immediate response - which could be developed into a full text.


Many of them can be done outdoors. Indeed it would be interesting to see whether smelling things outside evokes different responses.


(Do we smell things differently when we are outside?)


If you find out – let me know.



Why not check out our new Outdoor Literacy Pack?

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