“Smells like rain.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered this phrase in my life; a hundred, easily. To me, the scent of petrichor—the scientific term for the pleasant smell that accompanies a rain storm—is one of the most easily identifiable on earth. Every time I smell it, I am immediately transported to a memory, another place and time.

This phenomenon isn’t uncommon; smells ring bells. Thanks to our brain anatomy, there is a great memory power associated with smells that we do not consciously try to remember. For instance, there are particular holiday dishes, when I smell them, which bring the face of my great aunt Marie to my mind’s eye, even though I only met her a few times when I was very young.

This is why the sense of smell—one of the five I’ve been exploring in my What Does Your Playground… series—plays such an important role in designing outdoor learning environments. The scents, aromas, fragrances and odors associated with playgrounds can be transformative, and to my way of thinking, are just as important as what and how you feel in an outdoor space, or the sounds you encounter while you’re outside.

What does your playground smell like?

As I have been thinking about this part of my senses series, I have wanted to change the word “smell” to something a little less… stinky, maybe. “What is the fragrance of your playground? What is the scent of your playground? What is the aroma of your playground?” This, of course, comes from my long experience designing gardens, where we choose very particular plants with pleasant fragrances.

When I ask, “What does your playground smell like?” I hear mostly garden-related responses: flowers and fresh air. Fragrance and smell are not something children think much about until confronted with it. Yet there is a very close relationship between learning and children’s exploration of tactile (feel), taste and smell senses. Very early in our learning, we explore first with our grasping fingers, which agitate what we hold, releasing its fragrance—then we put it in our mouth to taste. (I think of this process as the original “scratch and sniff” testing.)

From mud to mint, there are more smells than there are days of school. In an outdoor learning environment, we want to highlight all the smells of the outdoors, including sweet flower fragrance, damp organic soil, moist breeze after it rains and more. But when planning a learning environment, we need to dig deeper, metaphorically and literally.

Here are a few things to incorporate into outdoor learning spaces.

Incorporate different types of vegetation and plant life in your outdoor classroom to encourage discoveryPlants

We will start with the obvious one, plants. When thinking about types of plants to include in and around an outdoor learning space, it is good to take a mixed approached. Try mixing different types of plants in areas with shrubs, perennials, herbs and vegetables, providing a sort of “along the way” path to discovery. Keep in mind, many indigenous plants are readily identifiable by their fragrance; when the twigs of a sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum) are scratched they release a ‘fruit-loop’ smell, and common spicebush (Lindera benzoin) exudes a sweet and spicy fragrance when its leaves and twigs are agitated. Lavender emits a distinctive aroma that many find soothing.

The scene of evergreens helps children identify the smells associated with seasonal weather changesGarden Materials

We don’t often think about the smell of miscellaneous garden materials, such as fallen logs and leaves, mud, sand and stones. But each has a unique smell which vary with the amount of water present. Integrating these organize garden materials serves a dual purpose, too. For example, a sand and stones add different textures that are perfect for little hands and feet to explore.

Smell of Weather

This is a great way to learn and live in our seasons, as each has a variety of smells unique to that time of year. Spring is full of smells of newness, fresh and clean.  Summer, most abundant plant fragrance as well as the overall humid air carries some density. Autumn: Who doesn’t remember the smell of fallen leaf piles, pumpkin innards, campfires and split wood? Winter, we tend to not notice so much, but there is a sharp crispness to winter smells, pine boughs and evergreens, and even the damp, clean scent of snow.

My hope, if you have been following along with this series, is that it’s clear how all things which activate our senses are related and intertwined, full of opportunity for discovery. We just have to slow down and remind ourselves to examine what is around us through fresh, childlike senses.