Back to school for the sense of smell

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Although olfactory education is absent from the official school curriculum in France, a number of initiatives demonstrate the benefits it can offer to children. Curiosity, sociability, (re)connection to the body and mind: stimulating youngsters’ sense of smell encourages their harmonious development as individuals and enriches their experience of the world.

“The education of the senses should be begun methodically in infancy, and should continue during the entire period of instruction which is to prepare the individual for life in society,” wrote Maria Montessori in the early 20th century in Scientific Pedagogy. In schools that continue to draw on her legacy, an activity called “smelling bottles” helps the children practice their ability to identify different odours and remember them. All it needs is six transparent bottles, each containing cotton wool sprinkled with an essential oil. After smelling each bottle one by one, the children are asked to pair up those with exactly the same scent. While the Montessori method includes, to a minor degree, olfactory education, the same cannot be said for the national education system, with the subject almost wholly absent from the school curriculum in France. The Week of Taste was introduced in 1990 and has been taken up by plenty of schools, but no one has yet suggested a Week of Smell. 

From nursery schools to universities

A number of initiatives have, however, been implemented by scientists and professionals from the fragrance and flavourings industry. A leading light among them is Roland Salesse, an agronomist and former scientific culture advisor at INRA, where he set up and headed the olfactory neurobiology unit. He founded the non-profit organisation Nez en Herbe in 2017 with the goal of developing young children’s sense of smell (we interviewed him last year). “Our goal is to teach children that they have a sense of smell and that they can use it,” he says. “Some of them do it spontaneously, or because their environment encourages them to, but their sense of smell is often neglected, which is a real loss since it adds another dimension to the world.” Nez en Herbe organises actions throughout the educational system, from nursery schools to universities, and takes part in cultural events attended by classes and families.

The organisation is also involved in a three-year research programme recently launched in the network of workplace crèches, Cap Enfants. The goal is to observe the development of children whose sense of smell is stimulated by their environment and childcare professionals. The topic, while still fairly new, is very promising. “Until now, research work has tended to concentrate on taste, but we know taste is largely about smell. The National Institute of Agricultural Research and the Centre for Taste and Feeding Behaviour in Dijon, for example, have worked on understanding the development of food preferences among children of all ages, but particularly at primary school level. Some of the researchers involved in the work told me they regretted not having studied even younger children, because the importance of the first 1,000 days is not a myth: the three first years of life are a decisive period in developing the learning process. The brain spends the next 20 years maturing, but it already has all its neurons and creates circuits,” explains Roland Salesse. “The golden age for our taste buds is said to be before the age of two and a half: children are very open to new experiences, as long as they feel safe.” 

Perfumer and Osmoart founder Pierre Bénard is equally convinced of the benefits of working with very young children. A teacher at ISIPCA, Montpellier University and the Givaudan perfumery school, he has been running olfactory events for over 20 years in educational establishments, from crèches to universities. He first got involved in these activities when studying biochemistry, a field he has continued to work in ever since. “We know that early childhood, the period up until nursery school, is the perfect time to stimulate children’s awareness of smells. But we can’t use blotters for these sorts of activity: they need something visible, shapes and colours. For example, we’ll play with citrus fruit, comparing their colours and shapes, scratching a fruit’s skin in one spot then getting the children to try and find it with their noses. You have to keep it simple and get the other senses involved, because we know that a smell is easier to remember when we associate it with a name and image. Having said that, remembering smells at that age is totally incidental. The real challenge is discovering that the world smells.”

Although olfactory education potentially concerns children of all ages, the mastery of language does seem to represent a boundary: before the acquisition of language, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of olfactory awakening. Once children are able to verbalise their experience, the odour field can become an object of study in itself, stimulating attention and memory in the same way as the smelling bottles mentioned above. It can also become the springboard for much broader activities, a gateway to other disciplines, as observed by Hirac Gurden, director of neuroscience research at the CNRS (and member of the Nez collective), who created, and recently led, an olfactory workshop at the École alsacienne in Paris for 13-year-old pupils. “Easy to reproduce and inexpensive”, the two-hour workshop is based on some of the most common herbs and spices.
Although it was initiated with Bénédicte Boscher, a life and earth sciences teacher, as part of her course, it clearly resonates with other disciplines. “Four teachers can use the workshop to explore the subject of smell with the same class: history and geography, to explore the origin of the spices and the important role they have played in discovering the world; French, to study texts on perfume and scents; life and earth sciences, to understand how olfaction works in the brain, and finally, physics and chemistry, to learn how atoms construct aromatic molecules, particularly aromatic rings.” Hirac Gurden is pleased that teachers have shown a keen interest in the initiative and equally delighted with the success it has had with the students: “For two hours, their attention didn’t flag, which is quite amazing when you consider that they generally tire pretty quickly. Young people’s attention span is plummeting because of screens, TikTok, and so on. Children are glued to their phones, which leads to a sensory and physical impoverishment that is harmful to their development. And their parents, who are also hooked on screens, can’t help them. Yet we can see that the sense of smell has a lot to offer them from this perspective, because it connects the brain to the body. When we multiply olfactory stimuli and involve the other senses, it’s a real lever for improving their attention span, because we attract the child to new stimuli, which excites their curiosity and therefore their attention, and so on. It’s a very interesting virtuous circle for young people, and we’ve observed it in the field.” 

Broader issues

Clearly, olfactory education and awareness involve issues that go far beyond the world of scents. Starting with the development of the brain. “In all mammals, but especially in primates, which is what we are, the richer the individual’s sensory environment, the stronger the connections. The brain then becomes more plastic, more adaptable, and is more capable of altering in response to changes in the environment. Conversely, we know that the brains of children who grow up in an environment where there is little sensory stimulation or where it is limited to one sense – such as screens – and of children who are isolated are not only fixed, but also have less potential for enrichment later on,” explains Hirac Gurden. “Sensory awakening has direct repercussions on the evolution of the individual,” adds Roland Salesse. “For example, in the case of laboratory mice and rats, the more odour-rich the environment they are raised in, the more intelligent and sociable they become.” It’s the same for humans. A rich environment promotes the performance of sensory circuits that process information and early learning – a known fact in the acquisition of language and writing. When the sense of smell is used in conjunction with the other senses, the brain’s representation of the world is more complete, richer and, for children, more reassuring.” Children can also develop more openness of mind thanks to smells, notes Pierre Bénard, who sometimes runs activities internationally, such as at the French high school in Djibouti. “When we start discussing smells with children, it’s often so fascinating. We discover other sensibilities, sometimes linked to other cultures where the reference points are not the same. We learn to listen to other people’s perceptions, which are not always the same as ours. It leads to tolerance.” And we mustn’t forget that smells also, quite simply, bring us pleasure, as Roland Salesse points out: “Knowing how to appreciate odours in the same way as we appreciate a painting or music is an emotional experience that shouldn’t be underestimated. The same reward circuits are always at work: from the point of view of our brain, there is no hierarchy between the pleasures that our different senses give us.”

Train the trainers

So if the sense of smell can help children become more attentive, more sociable, more curious, more fulfilled individuals, what is the national education system waiting for? This is where the real challenge lies, as our interviewees agree. Without minimising the impact that a simple activity can have – it is sometimes enough to awaken a curiosity that children will retain for the rest of their lives – more systematic actions are needed to benefit the greatest number. It is therefore up to the teachers themselves to take on the convictions of our olfactory experts and appropriate their tools. Based on the workshop conducted at the École alsacienne, Hirac Gurden is currently working on formalising a protocol with a view to proposing it to the Paris education authority. If it were available on national education platforms, it could easily be implemented by teachers interested in it. Roland Salesse, for his part, is looking to increase the number of Nez en Herbe’s actions by passing the torch to teachers involved in an initial activity. “Everyone at the organisation is willing, but there aren’t many of us and our capacity to run activities in schools remains limited. I think it would be really interesting to train the trainers,” he explains. As for Pierre Bénard, he focuses on encouraging professionals in the perfume industry to take the time to raise awareness and pass on their curiosity about scents, without forgetting the essential role played by parents themselves. “During a public event, a mother told me that her daughter put her nose in her plate before eating, and that she found it disturbing: that’s not how she had taught her! I explained to her that, on the contrary, it was a good thing, because smelling food makes you salivate, whets the appetite and thus improves digestion. And that, through her sense of smell, her daughter would be able to remember her mum’s, dad’s or granny’s cooking all the better.” Olfactory education starts at home.

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it would indeed be very interesting to implement more sensorial activities into our educational system and especially those focusing on the sense of smell. While in Singapour managing Nose who knows , I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Singapour government on the exact same subject. It ways called Many Ways of Seeing and the objective was to bring the 5 senses into classroom. As olfactive trainer I had to share ways to use odour stimuli in a classroom environment with teahcers first and then demonstrate with children so they could replicate. I did that 2 years in a raw and as of today it very much remains one of my best achievement while managing my own business. Both teachers and children were very receptives to the experience so I am definitely convinced that this would be very beneficial to all.

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