Test Your Sense of Smell

Teach your child about the sense of smell and wildlife facts through fun “sniffing” games.


  • Cardboard cards or recipe cards, approximately five per group
  • Cotton balls, 1 per clue
  • Hole puncher
  • Empty baby food jars or several similar small containers
  • Clues about mammals, approximately five per mammal
  • Permanent marker – one that will not run if some scent seeps into the card
  • Rubber bands
  • Several different scents (vanilla, peppermint, lemon, orange, chocolate, pine needles – one per group)
  • Masking tape
  • Yarn or string, approximately 8 inches per clue

What You Do

  1. Prepare the smelling clues.
    1. This activity can be done with one other person, or with a group. Either way, you’ll want to prepare the clues in advance.
    2. To prepare the clues, you need to gather fun facts about mammals. You can make as many clues as you want per animal, depending on how many people will participate in the activity.
    3. Write the clues on cards, such as recipe cards or scraps of cardboard. Punch two holes in the corner of the card and thread in the holes a twist tie.
    4. Next take cotton swabs and dab them in a scent. We found that lemon and peppermint worked well. Vanilla discolored the swab, thus giving a visual hint (which you don’t want to do). Other scents you could use might be orange, chocolate or cinnamon.
  2. Prepare small jars.
    For each mammal, you will need a small jar. Put a cotton swab in the jar. Then attach matching swabs on the correct clues that go with that mammal.
  3. Prepare the clues for hiding.
    Punch one more hole in each clue card, and string on a piece of string that is long enough so you can hang it like an ornament some where outside.
  4. Hang the clues outside.
    In a defined search area, such as a backyard or a playground, hang the clues around the space. You need at least two sets of clues, so the participants have to match them into groups.
  5. Get your participants acquainted with your smells.
    Start the activity with your participants by discussing the importance of the sense of smell, for most mammals. They use their noses to detect predators or prey, to distinguish between family and non-family, to find mates and to recognize their territories.
    Now give the participants the jars with the scented cotton batting inside. Don’t tell them what the smells are.
    At this point, you could divide the participants into teams. You could have one team take the first jar, and the second team take the other. But it’s fun to do with one child as well.
  6. Participants now gather all the clues that match their jar.
    The participants will walk around the space with their jar in hand. They can smell each clue. When they find a matching clue, they can take the clue and hang it from their arm.
  7. Participants examine the clues to figure out which mammal they were assigned.
    You should tell the participants how many clues are hidden for their mammal. Once they find them all, they can sit down, read the clues together, and guess the mammal.
  8. Check to see if they guessed the right mammal.
    You could have them write their guess on the bottom of the jar. Then pick up your scents and see if they match.
  9. Activity Variation: Mothers and Babies
    1. Another way to play this game is to make matching jars with cotton ball scents. Divide the group into two teams.
    2. Team 1 will be the mammal mothers and Team 2 will be the babies.Team 1 “Mothers” stand at the front of the room and Team 2 “Babies” stand at the far end of the room.
    3. Give each mother the jar with a scent and tell them to try to memorize the smell, and then give them just the cap.
    4. Collect all the jars and mix them up and pass them out to the babies.
    5. Now each mother needs to find the right baby by sniffing the baby’s containers and finding the correct scent. Remember no peeking at the numbers on the jars and lids.
    6. Once everyone thinks they found their matches have everyone check their numbers to see if they are correct.Switch roles and play again!
  10. Activity Variation: Follow a Scent Trail
    Use the clue cards you made for the original activity. But instead of having them collect the cards and guess their mammal, they will instead choose to follow a trail based on the scents. This works well if you do the activity in a place where there is a spot and many trails leading from it. Participants choose their trail by following their assigned scent.