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Scent bottles

picking herbsOur son is now 28 months old. Please note: I use the terms “he” and “him” in this exercise because my child is a boy and I find using “he/she” and “him/her” to be clunky.

This is a sensorial exercise that requires your child to sort various smells. It helps your child to develop his olfactory sense, make him aware of different and like smells, develop the vocabulary to describe them and use fine-motor skills in opening and closing the jars.

For this exercise, we began by choosing our “smelly” objects together. When I first conceived of this exercise, I had hoped to gather some different blooms from our yard, so I could present to our son the smells of spring. But the only things blooming in our yard right now are s few iris and some flowers that I don’t know the name of (I am horrible at knowing the names of plants — it is something I need to work on).

So I decided instead to let him pick some fresh herbs from our planters outside. This way, I knew all the names of what he picked and we were guaranteed to have some strong-smelling objects.

If you’re using bottles for this exercise that previously contained foods or spices that are different from the smells you’re using in this exercise, be sure to wash them thoroughly beforehand to get rid of any lingering smells from heir previous contents.

There are two controls of error in this exercise. If the bottles aren’t matched correctly, the last pair won’t smell the same. Additionally, you should have one bottle with a red top and one bottle with a blue top for each smell if they are sorted correctly when the exercise is finished.

This activity is based on exercises in Teaching Montessori in the Home: Pre-School Years: The Pre-School Years and Teach Me to Do It Myself: Montessori Activities for You and Your Child.

Materials needed

Montessori Monday

  • 3 items with contrasting smells (for example, spices, herbs, flowers or citrus fruits)
  • 6 small jars with lids (for example, spice jars or baby food jars)
  • 6 cotton balls or pads
  • Red and blue paint
  • Paintbrush


  1. Place a cotton ball or pad in each jar.
  2. Paint red dots on half of the bottle lids and blue dots on the other half.
  3. Divide each smelling object between two bottles (one with a red top and the other with a blue top.
  4. Cover the jars and let them sit for at least 5 minutes to give the cotton balls enough time to absorb the smells.
  5. Before you present the lesson to your child, especially if you are using clear jars, be sure to either remove the smelling objects from each jar (leaving only the cotton ball or pad inside), wrap a piece of paper around the jar to make it difficult to see what is inside or blindfold your child.
  6. Take the bottles to your lesson area and arrange the bottles into two rows (one with red tops, and the other with blue tops).
  7. Ask your child to sit on your left (or on your right, if he is left-handed).
  8. Open one of the jars, smell its contents, identify the smell (i.e., “This smells like lemon”), replace the bottle top and repeat the procedure with the other bottles until you find a matching smell.
  9. Once you have a pair, place the two jars next to each other off on the right side of your work area.
  10. Invite your child to finish sorting the jars.

Safety note: Nothing like stating the obvious, but be sure to use objects that are safe for smelling. do not use toxic household cleaners, poisons, etc. Also, be sure to warn your child that some things give off fumes that are not safe to smell.

Our experience

smelling scents

I had a hard time even demonstrating this exercise to my son. As soon as I put the jars down in our work area, he was ready to start opening them and smelling. He was quite content to open each jar and smell its contents but not at all interested in sorting them.

Working together, we were able to sort a couple of the smells, but honestly it was hard for me to distinguish some of them myself, even though we had chosen fragrant herbs (rosemary, mint and sage). Admittedly, I have a horrible sense of smell, but I think next time I would let the cotton pads absorb the smells longer, use more of our smelling objects and/or wrap the jars with paper (I let the cotton balls sit with the smells for about 5 minutes and removed the smelling objects before presenting the exercise).

Once we were finished sorting them to the best of our ability, my son started stacking the jars. Of course, they fell down (luckily, since we were using glass jars, none of them broke), but then he just started smelling them again.

Besides the stacking incident, I also discovered that this exercise is best done with supervision. My son returned to the exercise later, but he opened all the tops and removed all of the cotton balls from the jars. Rather than going through and sniffing all the cotton balls to get them set up again (especially given my olfactory limitations), I decided to set the jars up again leaving the smelling objects inside.


  1. Use different ways to sort the smells. For example, instead of matching pairs of smells, sort the smells into sets of “good” smells and “bad” smells.
  2. Increase the number of smells.
  3. Play a game of guessing the smells. Go through each bottle and identify the smell for your child. Then, ask him to open one of the jars and identify the smell.
  4. As cliché as it is, take time to smell the roses. As you’re going through your day, talk about different smells with your child (i.e., stop to smell flowers, let him smell herbs as he helps you cook, etc.).

What other toddler activities can you think of that help develop your child’s sense of smell?

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4 Responses to Scent bottles

  1. I’m finding the sense of smell the hardest to get across to my toddler (32 months) – it’s really difficult to explain a smell to him. We’ve been growing herbs near the house and he has to walk past them they have very contrasting smells – curry plant, mint and chives. I’ve also been scenting homemade playdough with different flavours as well.

    The only smell that he completly understands is smelly nappies which are POOOOWHIFFY according to him.

    • Lol about the nappies. Scenting the playdough is a good idea. I hadn’t thought of that. One struggle I’m having with smells is that I don’t have a good sense of smell, so it’s something I need to work on myself.

  2. We tried this a couple months ago when my son was around 22 months. Like your son, he couldn’t wait to open the jars and start smelling! I didn’t even attempt to try matching – but definitely will when he’s older. He just enjoyed smelling the different scents and working on opening and closing the bottles. I used cotton balls to absorb some of the smell and it worked out really well!

    • Yes, I thought the matching might be too advanced for him, but I wanted to give it a try since he often surprises me with his abilities. He does enjoy opening and closing the jars, though, and smelling the contents, which is good.

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