Sensory Systems Explained: What is Olfactory?

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The olfactory sensory system, which is responsible for our sense of smell, plays an important role in learning and development, especially in preschool-aged children.

Did you know that we have EIGHT sensory systems?! Most people only know the top five. This blog post is part of a series in which we delve into all eight sensory systems.

In addition to the olfactory system we have seven other sensory systems. They are:

What is the Olfactory Sensory System?

The olfactory sensory system is the sensory system responsible for our sense of smell. The olfactory system is located in the upper part of the nasal cavity and is made up of specialized sensory cells called olfactory receptor neurons. These neurons have hair-like projections that extend into the nasal cavity and detect different molecules in the air.

The Sense of Smell in Child Development

In preschool-aged children, the olfactory sensory system is still developing and maturing. 

Children at this age are learning to identify and distinguish different smells, which can help them learn about their environment and develop their senses. 

They may also be more sensitive to certain smells than adults, as their olfactory receptors are still developing and becoming more specialized.

The link between the sense of smell and the emotional center of the brain, as well as the presence of being hyperresponsive or hyporesponsive to smells, may lead to anxiety or sensory-related meltdowns in children who have difficulty processing sensory information.

Indicators of a Hyperresponsive Olfactory Sense in Children 

A hyperresponsive olfactory sense in children, also known as hyperosmia, may manifest in various ways. Some indicators of a hyperresponsive olfactory sense in children are:

Discomfort or aversion to certain smells: Children who are hyperresponsive to smells may find certain odors to be overwhelming, unpleasant, or even painful. They may be easily bothered by strong scents, such as perfume, cleaning products, or cooking smells.

Overreaction to smells: Children to overreact to certain smells, such as coughing, sneezing, or gagging. They may also become irritable, agitated, or anxious in response to certain odors.

Difficulty concentrating: Children with a hyperresponsive olfactory sense may have difficulty concentrating or focusing in environments with strong or distracting odors.

Sensory-avoiding behavior: Some children may engage in sensory-avoiding behavior, such as avoiding smelling or sniffing objects excessively or and becoming anxious around strong smells.

Avoidance of certain environments: Children may avoid certain environments, such as crowded or busy places, where they may be exposed to a variety of strong smells.

Indicators of a Hyporesponsive Olfactory Sense in Children

A hyporesponsive olfactory sense in children may manifest in various ways. Some indicators of a hypo-responsive olfactory sense in children are:

Difficulty identifying smells: Children may have difficulty identifying or distinguishing between different smells. They may struggle to detect faint or subtle odors or fail to notice strong or pungent smells.

Reduced appetite or interest in food: Since smell is closely linked to taste, children may experience a reduced appetite or interest in food. They may find it difficult to enjoy certain foods or may have difficulty distinguishing between flavors.

Sensory-seeking behavior: Some children with hyperosmia may engage in sensory-seeking behavior, such as smelling or sniffing objects excessively or seeking out strong smells.

Reduced awareness of environmental hazards: Children may have a reduced awareness of environmental hazards that are signaled by smell, such as chemicals, smoke, or spoiled food.

Importance of Olfactory Development for Children 

Keeping in mind that children may be hyperresponsive or hyporesponsive to smell, educators and caregivers should engage the olfactory sensory system with children. The sense of smell plays an important role in a child’s overall sensory experience and can have a significant impact on their learning, memory, and emotional well-being. 

The olfactory sensory system is important for learning in preschool in several ways:

Exploration: Preschoolers are naturally curious and eager to explore their environment. Smell is an important sense that allows them to explore and identify different objects and substances in their environment. For example, they can use their sense of smell to identify flowers, foods, and other objects around them.

Safety: The sense of smell also plays a critical role in keeping preschoolers safe. Smells can warn children of potential danger, such as smoke from a fire, gas leaks, or spoiled food. This helps them learn to avoid potential hazards and protect themselves from harm.

Socialization: The olfactory sensory system also plays a role in socialization and building relationships. Preschoolers can use their sense of smell to identify familiar people and objects, which can help them feel more comfortable and secure in new social situations. Additionally, they can use their sense of smell to detect and differentiate between different emotions in others, such as fear or happiness.

Creativity: Finally, the sense of smell can also stimulate creativity and imagination in preschoolers. Smells can trigger memories, emotions, and associations that can inspire children to create stories, art, or imaginative play scenarios. This helps children develop their creativity and imagination, which are important skills for learning and development.

Sense of Smell Activities for Preschoolers

Below you will find some sensory activities that can help preschoolers develop their sense of smell:

Smell jars: Fill small jars or containers with various scents, such as cinnamon, vanilla, or lemon, and have children identify each scent by smelling it.

Scented playdough: Add essential oils or scents to homemade or store-bought playdough and have children use their sense of smell to explore and play with the scented dough.

Scented sensory bins: Create sensory bins filled with items that have strong scents, such as coffee beans, herbs, or flowers, and have children use their sense of smell to explore and discover the different scents.

Guess the scent: Blindfold a child and have them smell various scents while trying to guess what each scent is. This can be done with common kitchen spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, or with other scents like essential oils.

Scented art projects: Add scents to art projects, such as scented markers or scented paints, and have children use their sense of smell as they create their artwork.

Cooking and baking: Encourage children to use their sense of smell while cooking or baking by having them smell different spices or ingredients as they prepare a recipe.

Scented stickers: Use stickers infused with different scents, such as fruit, flowers, or spices, and have children use their sense of smell to identify each scent.

Scented nature walk: Take children on a nature walk and encourage them to smell different plants and flowers along the way. Alternatively, bring different scented items with you on the walk, such as sprigs of lavender or a jar of cinnamon sticks, and have children smell each item as you walk.

Scented bubbles: Add a few drops of scented oils to bubble solution, and have children use their sense of smell to experience the different scents as they blow bubbles.

Scented memory game: Create a memory game using different scents, where children have to match each scent with its corresponding scent or picture. This can be done using essential oils or scratch and sniff markers.

There are so many different ways you can incorporate olfactory sensory activities into your child’s daily life!

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