Host a "Sensory Olympics"

Engage your child's sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch by staging a five-event "Sensory Olympics." You'll activate their sense of wonder, too.


"Taste this!" "Look at that!" "Listen up!" Parents appeal to their children's senses throughout the day without thinking about it. You can also encourage your kids' awareness of their senses in a more overt manner, and have them learn from the experience, by staging fun activities that focus on the five senses. Call them the "Sensory Olympics" and get ready to host the games.

"Activities involving the senses are great ways to help children learn about themselves and about science -- and have a great time doing it," says Eric H. Chudler, PhD, a research neuroscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Chudler also is director of Neuroscience for Kids, a National Institutes of Health-supported initiative devoted to teaching students and teachers about how the brain works.

After consulting with Chudler and with Lawrence Katz, PhD, author of Keep Your Brain Alive, we gathered some sensory exercises that will make your kids use -- and marvel at -- their five senses. Most of these events are basic enough that young children (6 or younger) will find them easy to follow, but fun enough that older siblings won't mind joining in. We've also offered some sense-appropriate prizes for the winner of each event.

Taste

What we refer to as taste is actually what scientists call the "taste experience," a combination of both taste and smell. Our 10,000 taste buds (each of which consists of 50 to 100 sensory cells) detect only a few basic categories of tastes, such as salty, sweet, and sour. It's actually our sense of smell that allows us to distinguish thousands of different flavors within those categories.

Let your kids see for themselves what happens to their "taste" when their sense of smell (or touch, for that matter) isn't engaged.

Using Your Bean. Blindfold the children, then give them each one sweet and one sour jelly bean -- say, a sour apple and a strawberry. Ask the kids to pinch their noses and to -- one at a time -- pop the jelly beans into their mouths and identify which is sweet and which is sour. Each child who identifies the different beans correctly gets 1 point.

Next, give each child two sweet but different flavor jelly beans -- like a strawberry and a cherry -- and ask them to try to identify the jelly bean flavor with their noses pinched. If they can't (and they shouldn't be able to), ask them to try again, using two new jelly beans, without pinching their noses. Each child who identifies each individual flavor gets 1 point. The child with the most points wins.

The Prize: Jelly beans or other favorite taste treat.

Touch

Skin is the body's largest sensory organ, containing receptors that are stimulated by touch, pressure, and temperature. When a receptor is stimulated, it triggers a series of nerve impulses, which make their way to your brain and interpret the signals -- and you feel the stimulus. The question in this part of our Sensory Pentathlon: Can you identify certain items just by touch?

Sock It to Me! In separate socks, place different small objects, such as a:

  • bottle cap
  • paper clip
  • marble
  • raisin
  • grape
  • jack
  • Lego

Give each child one or more socks, and ask them to guess what's inside by feeling the object from the outside of the sock. If they can guess what it is, they get 2 points. If they can't, ask them to put a hand inside the sock and feel the object. If they guess correctly, they get 1 point. The child with the most points at the end of the game wins.

To play the game in a slightly different way, collect pairs of the same small objects as above. Put all the objects in a pillowcase, and ask the children to take turns reaching into the pillowcase and pulling out matching pairs. For a bigger challenge, use object pairs that are only slightly different from each other, such as small squares of different grades of sandpaper or different size marbles. The child with the most correct matches or who matches all the items in the least amount of time wins.

Got a Dollar? (for Bigger Brains). You have to know how to make change to play this game. Place two quarters, four dimes, and eight nickels into a sock. Then ask each child to reach into the sock and, solely by touch, pull out $1 in coins. The child who makes the dollar fastest without going over a dollar wins.

The Prize: Game of Pick-Up Sticks.

Hearing

Kids have more sensitive ears than adults, and they can recognize a wider variety of noises. Try putting your own ears to the test in this event.

Name That Sound! Either ask the children to close their eyes or blindfold them. Then ask each kid individually (so you can tailor the difficulty of the challenge to the age of the child) to identify the sound you're making -- clapping hands or tapping a pencil against a desk or counter. Each time a child correctly identifies the sound, he or she gets 1 point. The child with the most points after several rounds wins.

Some possible sound challenges: shaking coins, closing a book, crumpling up paper or foil, stomping feet on the floor, tearing paper, closing a stapler, bouncing a ball, dispensing ice from an ice maker, smacking gum, and opening the pop top on a soda can.

The Prize: A penny whistle or music CD.

Smell

Most of us can distinguish up to 10,000 different odors using the 40 million olfactory cells each of us has. But let's start with 10 or 12.

What Does Your Nose Know? Get a bunch of distinctly smelly items, such as lemons, onions, vanilla, vinegar, mint leaves, pine needles, chocolate, pencil shavings, and moth balls. Place each item separately in an enclosed opaque plastic container, such as a yogurt carton, so the odors you gathered don't mix. Poke a hole into the top of each container, then ask the children to try to identify each smell. The child whose nose knows best is the kid who identifies the most smells.

To play the same game another way, place the same smells in two containers so that you end up with a pair of containers for each smell you gather. Mix up the containers, then ask each child to take a turn matching the containers that contain the same smell and to identify that smell. A correct match is 1 point, as is a correctly identified smell. The child with the most points wins.

The Prize: Play dough -- it smells great!

Sight

One-fourth of the brain is involved in visual processing. That's more brain than is devoted to all other senses. Focus your sense of sight with these challenges.

Seeing Red (and Green and Blue). This "color spy" challenge is a variation on the time-honored "I Spy" game. Write the words red, yellow, blue, green, and orange on separate pieces of paper, and toss them into a bowl. Ask each child to pick one piece of paper; the color the child picks is the color he or she will "spy." When you yell "Go!" each child will have 5 minutes to search the room for objects of his or her color. When you yell "Stop!" each child will list all the objects he or she found -- and get 1 point per object. You can then all move to another room, draw different colors, and keep playing. At the end of the game, the child with the most points wins.

Confuse Your Noodle (for Bigger Brains). You have to be able to read to perform this challenge -- called the Stroop Effect -- which was first described in 1935 by psychologist J. Ridley Stroop. Using colored markers, write the names of these colors as a list on a sheet of paper: red, yellow, green, blue, red, blue, yellow, green, blue, red. When you write down the colors, make sure you write each using a pen color that's different from the color the name indicates. For instance, you might write the word "blue" in red ink. Then ask the kids to name the color ink used for each word. It's tough because viewing the written word interferes with the brain's ability to process information about color. The child who reads with the fewest errors wins.

The Prize: A kaleidoscope.

Sensational Fun!

For more sensory challenges and experiments as well as tons of kid-centric info about the five senses and the phenomenal organ that powers each, check out the National Institutes of Health-funded Neuroscience for Kids Web site.

National Institutes of Health-funded Neuroscience for Kids

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, November 2005.

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