Teaching the Five Senses to Kids
From the moment they’re born, children begin using their senses to make sense of their surroundings. Using sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, kids learn to interact with the world and understand how they relate to it.
While children will naturally learn about their senses on their own, engaging the senses in a structured way can provide some key benefits.Learning all about the five senses, can help kids aged 2 and up improve communication, cognition, and understanding, as well as gain a deeper appreciation of the world around them.
Understanding the senses:
For younger children, touch is one of the most important senses, primarily experienced through their hands and feet. Early childhood sees children soon differentiate between hot and cold, rough and smooth, dry and wet, sharp and dull, etc.
Our sense of touch is caused by receptors in our skin. These let us know if we’re experiencing pain, pleasure, pressure, movement, or any other touch sensation.
Bringing children's awareness to their skin and hands especially can help with fine motor activities such as writing and tying shoe laces.
Part of our olfactory system in our nose, smell is an especially evocative sense that children enjoy learning about. Notably, it is directly connected to the emotional systems of our brains.
When we sniff, we draw molecules into our nose, where they are dissolved and sent to hair-like structures called cilia. These send a signal to our brain, which then interprets the smell.
Smell helps to detect hazardous substances, enjoy food, and even recognize family members.
Spending time doing sense activities with children allows them to discover for themselves just how integral smell is to our experience of the world.
While the sense of sight is complex, all young children need to understand is that their eyes take in light that’s reflected off objects around them. This is then interpreted by our brain into an image we use to navigate the world.
Encouraging children to understand their sense of sight improves their ability to differentiate patterns, recognize words and objects, and also boosts their memory.
Sense activities that involve sight are great for literacy and mathematical skills as they teach children to be more observant. This is especially the case when letter forming, for example, and learning the alphabet.
Our sense of hearing depends on sound waves vibrating the inner parts of our ear and this being interpreted by our brain.
Just like our other senses, children can gain a better appreciation for their hearing by having their attention drawn to it. This brings hearing into conscious attention and makes it an object of study for a child.
Engaging in hearing activities helps develop a child’s listening ability. This is crucial for better communication, social skills, as well as musical ability.
Early understanding of taste should focus on the role of taste buds and how they help us experience the sensations of sweet, savory, sour, bitter, and salty.
It’s important to emphasize to young children how taste and smell “work together” to encourage a cohesive understanding of our senses. This helps develop a holistic understanding of how sense information creates a picture of the world outside our bodies.
Why is sensory development important?
- Understand the world
- Gives context to experience
- Language development
- Cognitive growth
- Prevent sensory overload
Sensory development gives children a chance to discover the limits and abilities of their senses. Early years sense activities provide a structured way to talk about our senses, children are better able to process and understand the world around them.
This is because our brains rely on existing concepts and experiences to interpret new sense data. Giving children the language and ability to talk about their senses can help them categorize and contextualize what they experience better, otherwise known as sensory integration.
During the process of sensory learning, children are constantly engaged and discovering new ways to think, feel, and compare their environment. This can boost language skills and cognitive growth, providing them with new vocabulary and concepts to work with.
A lot of sense activities also involve play that helps build pre-writing skills. These fine-motor abilities are necessary for holding a pencil, tying shoelaces, eating with cutlery, and more.
Sensory development can also make children feel at ease, allowing children to appreciate their own environment. They learn how to be present and aware without being overwhelmed by new experiences.
How to teach kids about their senses
- Books are a great way to engage children’s senses and their imagination. From an early age, interactive books can be used to facilitate sensory development and teach children about their own bodies. For toddlers, this includes pop-up and tactile books with books. Books focussing on the senses themselves are ideal for older children able to follow along.
- Games turn education into a fun activity that helps keep their attention and makes lessons stick. Countless studies have now shown the benefits of using games as a learning tool, improving problem-solving, social skills, and cognitive abilities.
- Exploring the world using our senses is a great way to bring the lessons learned in books and games to life. Taking your child out into a new environment and engaging all of their senses with questions and conversation helps them appreciate new places and enjoy discovering new things.
- Food can engage all of a child’s senses, especially if tasked with helping cook. Activities such as baking cookies involve children learning different sensations, such as the stickiness of the dough, the sight of the cookies cooking, and, of course, the smell and taste. Food-based activities not only engage all the senses but can be used to introduce new foods too.
- Media such as videos and music can also engage children’s senses. Curated education media not only helps reinforce lessons taught but can also allow them to see and hear things they may not have otherwise. Look out for media that engages multiple senses at once - like dance-along songs - to encourage sensory cohesion.
Sense activities for kids
- PlayDough modeling can help children discover the way hard, and soft touch can affect the world around them. Have children form dough into balls with their palms before squashing them flat to draw a contrast.
- “Draw “on your child’s back using your finger and have them guess what you’ve drawn. Have your child do the same on you to get them thinking about other people’s sense of touch too.
- Compare the smell of flowers in your garden or at the park. As you walk around, ask them what other smells they can detect, such as cut grass, a BBQ, etc.
- Create sensory bottles using cotton wool balls soaked in oils, foods, spices, lotions, and other substances with a strong smell. Get your child to try and guess what they think they’re smelling to stimulate memory recall and logical thinking.
- Use color acetate sheets to demonstrate how appearances can change. Hold the sheets up to a light source and overlay different sheets to create different colors.
- Perform a sight test with your child to see how far they can read or distinguish a picture. This shows children how sight diminishes with distance and gives them a better understanding of their own bodies.
- Have your child guess the sound of household objects, instruments, and anything else “noisy.” Using a blindfold, shake the objects at various distances and positions around your child to develop their perceptive skills. You can use musical items such as jingle bells and coins or make things trickier by placing rice in a tub, for instance.
- Go on a sound hike, identifying and labeling all the sounds you can hear together. This is something that can be incorporated into your everyday life and is a great way to keep your child engaged with the world around them.
- No smell food tasting is a fun game where children taste their favorite (and least favorite!) foods while holding their noses. This can be played blindfolded or with eyes open and can allow children to explore food in a new way.
- Comparison tasting bowls give your child a chance to compare the different taste profiles we experience directly. Use foods such as strawberries for sweet, cheese for savory, dark chocolate or greens for bitter, grapefruit for sour, and pretzels for salty.
Sensory development provides children with a structure to understand and appreciate their senses. This can lead to improved cognitive and problem-solving skills, as well as boost literacy and language abilities.