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A Practical Guide To Developing Enriched Science Content For Young Children

Chapter 5:  Creating Sensory-Rich Experiences With Five Extraordinary Tools

Think about your immediate surroundings…is the chair or floor that you’re sitting on hard or soft?  Do your shoes fit too snugly or just right?  Is the room hot or cold?  Is the sun shining outside or is it a cloudy day?  Is someone cooking in the kitchen?  Is it a food you like?  Or are you sitting outside and sense that there is a skunk nearby?  Hopefully, long before that skunk ever gets close enough for you to see it, you’ll recognize its distinctive odor.  In smelling it, you become aware of its presence.  Your senses are now on high alert, as you scan the bushes on the lookout for the elusive skunk.  But how do you know to stay clear of a skunk?  When did you learn to associate that particular smell with a skunk and that it is an animal to be avoided at all cost?  At some point in your life you learned about skunks, what it looks like, and how it smells.  You experienced the skunk through your senses, specifically its odor, and the scent memory stays with you forever. 

How Do We Use Our Five Senses? 

Our senses tell us about our environment and the world around us.  We experience life with our five senses, building memories, knowledge and information that we use to interpret future experiences.  Our five senses, together with our brain, are the tools we use to learn.  What we learn and the associated memories we have are sensory based, inextricably linked to the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and feel (touch) of the experience. 

Our senses provide our brains with sensory cues about the things we like, and about the things that are potentially dangerous to us.  Everyday is rich in sensory input-some unique to a day, a holiday, birthday or special event; while, others are ubiquitous to everyday life.  Sometimes all five of our senses work together; and, sometimes we use just one or two of our senses.  Our brain remembers the experiences of our past, triggered by visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile cues, and applies that knowledge to future experiences.  Often, the process is passive and we are not even aware that we are using our five senses. 

While each of our five senses is important, much of the information we gather from our environment is visually based.  For example, we don’t need to touch a porcupine to know that its quills are likely very sharp.  Through experience, we have come to associate long pointy things that have a narrowed tip with objects that are sharp.  Perhaps the initial encounter was with a sharp pencil, an accident with a pushpin, or we were told never to run with sharp objects like scissors.  At some point in our lives we encountered long pointy things and have subsequently applied our knowledge to other objects and similar experiences. 

The experiences of our lives and our knowledge is embedded in the information we gather, both actively and passively, through our five senses.  Our five senses are the tools we use to learn; to gather information; to make observations; to build memories; and, to experience life.  In short, the sensory input we receive through our senses is an ongoing process that expands our world and our understanding of it. 

Exploring The Science Behind The Five Senses

Every learning experience-science or otherwise-is experiential in nature, and as such relies on sensory input from our senses.  We observe, analyze, compare, and describe differences and similarities in terms of visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory and tactile input, and develop a “library” of reference information we can call on in the future.  As such, heightening a child’s awareness of their senses through an exploration of the science behind the five senses not only provides young children with the vocabulary skills needed to describe, compare and analyze their experiences, but also transforms many of their passive sensory experiences to active ones.