The 5 Senses and Observation

There are key science process skills that children need to learn both for science and for most other academic and life skills. The foundation is observation – using all their senses to learn more about their object of study. This is closely followed by communication – learning how to describe what they have observed so that another person can learn from their observations. (Learn more about these process skills and how to enhance them at https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2017/01/19/science-process-skills/

In our 5 senses, the big question we were exploring was: How do your senses help you experience and understand the world around you? We talked about observation and communication as part of that.

Hands-On Projects for Kids

We had a wide variety of hands-on activities and experiments for each sense. But we also realized that each sense could almost be a week’s worth of activities all by itself. There are so many more ideas beyond what we were able to fit into one session. I’ve split the activities into multiple posts to make them all more manageable lengths. Click below for:

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Opening Group Time

Intro to Theme and the Question: Tell them you’ll show them an item for just a moment, then ask them to describe what they noticed about it. (We used an orange plastic whistle. It could be interesting to show a very unfamiliar object to have them puzzle it through.) Show it very quickly, then hide it and ask them what they saw. Write down some of what they noticed. Then talk about what senses we used. Tell them that when we use our senses to explore something, that’s called making Observations. (write Observation on the board, then make columns for each of the 5 senses.) Now, pass the item around. Ask each child to make an observation. Prompt them to listen to it, smell it, etc. Write down all their new observations. Tell them that we probably don’t really want to taste it, so they can imagine how it tastes. Point out the long list of all the observations we made and all the ways we can observe one object to learn more.

Book: Five Senses by Aliki

Activity, if time: Play a “Guess That Sound” game. Either: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0Kp_J9kvNM or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbXbDw_THso

How do we sense things: Point to the words for our song (posted on the board). Tell the kids we need to come up with a gesture for each sense. Ask kids what part of the body we use to look – can they point to it? Then do listen, then taste, touch, smell. (Note: I’ve written below the easiest gestures to do for each.)

Note: I also made mini-posters showing what body parts we use for each sense. I used the images from www.engageny.org/resource/kindergarten-listening-learning-domain-2-flip-book-five-senses. Here’s the PDF.

Song:  Teacher-Cym’s Five Senses Song”  (Sung to the tune of ‘Bingo’)

“What are the senses, can you tell?  We use them every day-o:  Look, Listen, Taste, Touch, Smell – Look, Listen, Taste, Touch, Smell – Look, Listen, Taste, Touch, Smell… We’re using our five senses…!”  Include gestures for senses – point to eyes, then ears, then tongue, touch cheeks with palms, then point to nose. (Note: this was challenging even for adults to get right.)

Closing Circle

Reprise Song: 5 Senses Song. But then like BINGO, start dropping words – first time through we just point at eyes instead of saying look, then we say listen, taste, touch, smell. On second time, we point at eyes, then ears, then say taste, touch, smell, etc….

Book: I Hear a Pickle – Isadora

Discussion / Game: “Did you know that not all people have all five senses? That there are some people who can’t see? That’s called being blind.” Ask the kids for ideas for what kinds of special things can help people who can’t see. (e.g. braille, seeing eye dogs, audio books, etc.) Then say “some people can’t hear. That’s called being deaf. What are some things that help people who can’t hear” (e.g. closed captions, sign language, lip reading). “If we are not able to use one sense, then we have to rely more on the others. For example, in the other room, we had the what’s that smell game where you had to guess what you smelled without looking at it; in the feeling box you had to guess what you could feel without seeing it.” Then we played the “Find and repeat the sound” game described in the Hearing post.

Recommended Books – Overviews

  • My Five Senses by Aliki. Probably the best overall intro to the topic for broad range from 2.5 – 7 years old. It introduces all five senses, then gives examples for each: “When I drink my milk and eat my food, I use my sense of taste. I am tasting.” It’s not an exciting story, but it is a friendly and welcoming book full of simple illustrations of familiar experiences.
  • My Five Senses by Miller would be the best for  2 – 3 year olds. Each page has a big photo of a kid doing something interesting “With my nose, I smell popcorn, a horse, flowers, and garbage.” Good opportunities for discussion: “How do you think the garbage smells? Look at her face. What does she think of the smell?”
  •  I Hear a Pickle: and Smell, See, Touch, & Taste It, Too! by Isadora. For 3 – 6 year olds. The content is a little basic for a 6 year old, but they’ll still enjoy listening to it. The book is pretty long for a three year old, so you might do only one or two senses at a time. Cute illustrations. Each page has a few sentences, with accompanying illustrations. “I hear the rain. I hear the thunder. I don’t hear snow falling.” “I hear Grandma. We hear the music. I hear the drums. Too loud!!” Some fun silliness too – like the smell of baby poo, and the egg that got broken when touched.
  • Look, Listen, Taste, Touch, and Smell: Learning About Your Five Senses by Nettleton. A nice overview for ages 6 – 8. Has lots of public health style tips like “getting a good night’s sleep helps keep your senses sharp”, “wear earplugs around loud noises”, and “wear sunglasses in bright light”, and info about ENT doctors and ophthalmologists.
  • Kevin’s Big Book of the Five Senses, probably the hearing section. The whole thing is too long for a read-aloud, but the hearing section has some nice participatory things… what noise do these animals make?…

Book Series – Reviews

There are several different series that each have five books, one on each sense. I checked out the “Smelling” book from each of these series, and will share with you what I thought about the series based on that sample.

  • Smelling (The Five Senses series) by Rissman. Age 3 – 5, with nice photos of ethnically diverse kids and families doing familiar activities, simple explanations, clear examples. Another bonus is that the people depicted are very ethnically diverse. They also talk about how our senses protect us and about unsafe smells/tastes, etc. Sample of text: You use your nose to smell. / You breathe air into your nose through nostrils. / Your nose sends messages to your brain. / Your brain tells you what you are smelling.
  • Smell (Senses (Smart Apple)) by Ganeri. Age 5 – 7. Photos of diverse kids, illustrations of anatomy. I like that it first asks questions to engage: What happens when you smell a bunch of flowers? What’s your favorite smell? Do you like strong smells like stinky cheese? Covers science of smell well. Sample text “What are smells? Smells are made up of tiny bits that float in the air. They are too small to see. / When you breathe in, these tiny bits go up into your nostrils and into your nose. / The smells float up into a space inside your nose… / There, special hairs catch the smells… / The sticky hairs send messages about the smells along nerves to your brain.” Good kindergarten to first grade non-fiction science book.
  • Smell (Your Five Senses and Your Sixth Sense) by Reade. Age 4 – 6. Good photos of ethically diverse children. Feels more like a connection of random smell trivia than a clearly laid out flow. And some is key info for a young child (“You smell with your nose. Smelling uses your brain too.” and “Some smells warn you of danger. If you smell smoke, there may be a fire.”), other info is not. (“People who cannot smell have anosmia.” “Most people can smell 10,000 different smells.”… most preschoolers don’t know what 10,000 is…)
  • Science in Action: The Senses – Smell by Hewitt. Age 6 – 8. Good photos of diverse kids and pictures of examples of smelly things. Nice overview of all the key info about smelling. Includes activities: “try to be a sniffer dog. Put some smelly cheese or chopped onion on a plate. Ask a friend to hide it. Can you… sniff it out?” “It’s harder to recognize a smell when you can’t see where it’s coming from. Put some banana, lemon, chocolate, soap, toothpaste and dishwashing liquid in six paper cups. Cover the cups with squares of card punched with small holes. Mix [them]… then sniff the lids. Which smells can you detect?”
  • Smelling (My Senses) by Jones. 4 – 6 years. Big, bright, colorful, engaging photos (the best photos of any of these series.) Good, clear basic info. Sample text: “Your sense of smell can tell you when you are in danger. / When you smell smoke, your brain tells you something is burning.” Includes one activity: have an adult find 3 foods with strong smells. Close your eyes, smell, and guess. Minor quibble: It says: “If an object is far away, it takes longer for you to smell it. If it is near to you, you can smell it more quickly.” This doesn’t quite convey it right…. if a smell starts (like smoke begins to rise) you will smell it more quickly if you are nearby, and the smell will take longer to reach you if you are further away. Versus sight is more instantaneous… you see the fire start at pretty much the same time whether you’re one foot away or 50 feet away but with a good sight line.
  • Smelling (Senses in My World) by Rustad. Book description says kindergarten to grade 2. I would say more preschool level, age 3 – 5. Nice diverse photos. I like the focus on: here’s what I smell – here’s what it tells me: “Sean smells pizza. Yum! He knows what is for supper. John smells wood burning. Aah! He knows the [camp]fire is started. Eli smells his stinky feet. Ew! He knows he needs a bath.”
  • My Bilingual Book–Smell (English–Turkish) by Secmen. Age 3 – 5. Illustrations rather than photos. Originally written in Turkish. Book includes the Arabic writing of the original text and the English translation. The English doesn’t always flow perfectly, but the content is good. “It helps you decide what you like to eat and animals you don’t want to meet! [skunk] Your nose is your detective for finding cakes. It will track down goodies, whatever it takes. Your smell sense tells you where you are, in a forest, by the sea, or in a city full of cars.” Good overall, and I give bilingual books bonus points… even though I do not have any Turkish families in my class at this time, I like to put out resources that could serve diverse populations.

How many senses are there? One of the great things about teaching and working with children is that it encourages us as adults to look at things with new perspectives. As we describe how something works, we gain a deeper understanding of it ourselves. And sometimes we learn new things.

I surprised some parents this week by talking about the flavor umami. Many had never heard of it. With other parents, I surprised them by sharing that there are more than 5 senses. There are things which we perceive/are aware of that we can’t really describe as coming to us through those previously defined 5 senses.

I don’t think I would attempt to explain this to preschool/elementary kids, but for older kids and for adults, here are some senses to consider:

  • Vestibular system – helps us to stay balanced, and also tells us if we are moving slowly or quickly through space. Although other senses inform this (like if we’re standing on our head, touch sensors in our scalp will help confirm that) this perception is separate from the five senses.
  • Proprioception – how we know where our body parts are located in space without having to look at them. (This is important… Think how hard it would be to drive safely if instead of watching the road, we had to look to make sure our foot was on the gas, and look at the position of our hands on the steering wheel.) A 3-month-old baby has to look at his hand when reaching for something so that his eyesight can help confirm the location. A five-month-old can reach out and grab without looking at her hand.
  • Senses of our internal bodily systems – the sense of being hungry or full, itches, and the need to urinate are not explained by the five senses and instead indicate other ways in which we perceive information.
  • There’s LOTS more in this Wikipedia article.

Learn more in “How Many Senses Do We Have?”

Next Generation Science Standards (resource for homeschooling parents or teachers). I did not find reference to the 5 senses in the kindergarten through third grade standards. At 4th grade level, there’s 4-LS1-2: “Use a model to describe that animals receive different types of information through their senses, process the information in their brain, and respond to the information in different ways. [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on systems of information transfer.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the mechanisms by which the brain stores and recalls information or the mechanisms of how sensory receptors function.]”

A resource from New York lists these core content standards for a kindergarten curriculum on the 5 Senses:

  • Identify and describe the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch
  • Identify the body parts associated with the five senses
  • Provide simple explanations about how the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin work
  • Describe how the five senses help people learn about their world
  • Describe some ways people take care of their bodies
  • Describe some ways the five senses help protect people from harm
  • Describe the experiences and challenges of someone who is blind or deaf

Homework: The best way for parents to follow up on these ideas at home is to ask their child to make observations about things. “Look at this – what do you notice?” “What is that sound?” “Do you smell something?” After they make initial observations, ask more questions to draw out more thoughtful observations for more details. Encourage them to use as many senses as possible to explore it. “what color is it? bright blue or dark blue? what else have you seen that is that color? is it soft or hard? smooth or rough? do you like the way it feels?”

Resources: there’s lots of great activity ideas at: http://primarylearninglogs.blogspot.com/search/label/5%20senses

There is a full free, downloadable curriculum for kindergarten level classes on the five senses available at www.engageny.org/resource/kindergarten-listening-learning-domain-2-anthology-five-senses. I haven’t yet reviewed it in detail, but it looks great!

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