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"What does purple smell like?" (multi-sensory learning)(Teaching Strategies)

Close your eyes. What is purple? Without any visual clues, can you differentiate purple from other colors? Can you smell purple? Can you taste purple? Although adults may take their understanding of colors for granted, children need the help of multi-sensory experiences to achieve that awareness.

Multi-Sensory Learning

As a former kindergarten teacher and child care center director, I was well acquainted with teaching children colors. I had done many thematic units related to the subject; in retrospect, however, they were all visual! Early childhood education emphasizes children's multi-sensory learning through experimentation, investigation and discovery (Dewey, 1938; Elkind, 1987; Fisher, 1965; Holt, 1989; Katz & Chard, 1989; Malaguzzi, 1993; Piaget, 1983; Rinaldi, 1993). Multi-sensory learning, which gives children opportunities to create their own knowledge, is the foundation for creating conceptual understanding.

Young children, then, learn through direct encounters with the immediate world of people and objects, through exploring these experiences with all their senses and combining these experiences to arrive at more complex and complete schemas, or elementary concepts of the furnishings of everyday life. This type of manipulative learning is a necessary prerequisite to the symbolic learning that will come later. (Elkind, 1987, p. 139)

While most early childhood educators would agree that stimulating sensory experiences help young children's cognitive development, how often do we limit our introduction, discussion or investigation of colors to just the visual experience?

How can we design the environment to stimulate and facilitate children's exploration, discovery and understanding of color beyond the traditional boundaries of sight? We know children can see purple, but couldn't they also smell and taste it as well?

Discovering Colors with Older Toddlers

While director of a child care center, I embarked on a joint project with the lead teacher of our older 2-year-olds to explore how older toddlers begin to understand color. Could we incorporate our understanding of young children's cognitive process with their discovery of color? The project was not designed to introduce a curriculum guide, but rather to introduce materials that would stimulate sensory learning and "provide conditions for learning" (Malaguzzi, 1993, p. 77) to help the children construct their own understanding of color and color relationships.

Our observations showed that children's first step in learning about color entailed understanding the concepts of "same" and "different." To understand purple, they had to see purple in its relationships to other colors. Before they could label a color with its appropriate name, they had to first understand that colors differ. "A" is not "B" and "A" is not "C" and "A" is not "D"; accordingly, purple is not the same as red, nor any other color. Purple is distinctive.

When we read Piaget carefully, we begin to realize that there is no physical fact that can stand independent of some system of relations that gives it meaning. The color red, surely thought by many to be a raw, uninterpreted sensation, is not understood as red until it is implicitly compared by the observer to colors that are not red. (Kamii, 1974)

Our eyes may be stimulated by the red band of light, but that wavelength does not become known to us as red until we think (albeit automatically) about it, compare red to not-red, or, in general terms, compare A to not-A. (Forman & Kushner, 1983, p. 28)

Children first understand colors, therefore, as they compare them with other colors; later, they add the appropriate color names. Our focus was a simple extension of the above: If children discovered that colors not only looked different but also smelled and tasted different, perhaps these sensory experiences would confirm their initial understanding of colors' differences.

To give the children ample time to discover and experiment, we devoted an entire week to exploring each new color. The first week we focused only on purple. In subsequent weeks, we added only one new color. The children seemed to like the way we avoided investigating all of the colors at once.

What Does Purple Smell Like?

We matched each color to a scent and flavor to assist the children in understanding that colors differ: 1) purple = grapes, 2) red = strawberries, 3) blue = blueberries, 4) yellow = lemons, 5) green = limes, 6) orange = oranges, 7) brown = chocolate, 8) black = licorice, and 9) white = vanilla. We painted small, empty butter tubs in the various colors and filled them with the corresponding flavor of powdered gelatin (gelatin had the strongest aroma). The children quickly created a new game, "Smell the Color," the object of which was to guess the color by its smell, while blindfolded. This was great fun to watch! Occasionally, the teacher also added scented candles at lunch time, which caused a real hush to fall over the lunch tables!

What Does Purple Taste Like?

Our daily snacks were deliciously consistent with that week's selected color. Food offered many opportunities for making and tasting colors: gelatin, pudding, pudding popsicles, pudding pie tarts, fruit juices, flavored drinks and popsicles. The children were ecstatic over their first opportunity to pour, mix and stir real ingredients.

What Does Purple Look Like?

In addition to stimulating the senses of smell and taste, we also incorporated many traditional art activities (using play dough [with flavoring added to reproduce the smell], fingerpainting, Q-tip painting, making tissue paper mosaics, sponge painting, drawing with colored chalk and roller painting) as well as poetry, literature, sorting centers (mosaic tiles, pom-pons, etc.) and "magic light" centers (flashlights covered with cellophane and an overhead projector with colored transparencies). All of these activities focused on the visual discrimination of color. The teacher even placed silk floral arrangements on the lunch tables each week that accentuated the color being explored.

We also incorporated visual discrimination of color into activities based on the children's interests (Fyfe & Forman, 1996; Katz & Chard, 1989; Rinaldi, 1993). Knowing that our toddlers loved to dress up, each week we dressed our teddy bear in a new color. On the first day of Week 1, the children dressed the bear in purple - tee shirt, socks, wristband, necklace, baseball hat and even sunglasses! The children were spellbound as they dressed "Rainbow" and watched this almost magical transformation of a plain, old bear into a very special "Rainbow Bear."

As our toddlers preferred using real objects, we assembled a laundry basket of purple household items (mirror, toothbrush holder, plastic cup, costume jewelry, scarves, etc.). The children loved playing "store," in which the teacher would request specific color items from the basket and await the "shopkeeper's" assistance. They also enjoyed searching for these colorful items on our weekly treasure hunts throughout the building and on the playground. (Note: garage sales offer very inexpensive, yet colorful, household items.)

Our culminating activity was the Rainbow Parade, which was held on the last day of the last week. Each child chose a color (with ten children, we added a week for pink, which we equated with bubble gum). Each child dressed up in "Rainbow's" color outfits of tee shirt, socks, wristband, hat, necklace and sunglasses and then paraded throughout the building. The children were truly immersed in color!

Do Parents Like Purple?

Parental interest was at an all-time high during this project; we had never seen them so excited. The parents thought this was a most unusual way of discovering colors and were intrigued and captivated by the children's enthusiasm and excitement. They were also very generous in contributing special snacks and ingredients for cooking. They even volunteered to dress the children in the designated colors. We all rediscovered colors together.


Children can benefit from an environment that stimulates and facilitates their exploration, discovery and understanding of color, beyond the traditional boundaries of sight. At the beginning of this project, only four of the ten children knew the eight basic colors. By the conclusion of this project, however, all ten knew all of the colors. The children not only recognized the colors by their appropriate names, but also began to mention colors in their conversation. One little boy, for example, went to the teacher and said, "Colin can't put on his purple coat." The children truly began to notice and observe the colors in their environment. By incorporating other senses, we gave the older toddlers rich multi-sensory experiences that truly nurtured and supported their own personal cognitive construction of the concept of color. As the toddlers discovered, "Purple smells like grapes and purple tastes like grapes, too!"


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Elkind, D. (1987). Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk. New York: Knopf.

Fisher, D. (1965). Montessori for parents. Cambridge, MA: Bentley.

Fyfe, B., & Forman, G. (1996). The negotiated curriculum. Innovations, 3(4), 4-7.

Forman, G., & Kushner, D. (1983). The child's construction of knowledge: Piaget for teaching children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Holt, J. (1989). Learning all the time. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kamii, C. (1974). One intelligence indivisible. Paper presented at the annual convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, DC.

Katz, L., & Chard, S. (1989). Engaging children's minds: The project approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Malaguzzi, L. (1993). History, ideas, and basic philosophy. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 41-90). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In W. Kessen (Ed.), History, theory, and methods: The handbook of child psychology, Vol. 1 (pp. 113-118). New York: Wiley.

Rinaldi, C. (1993). The emergent curriculum and social constructivism. In C. Edwards, L. Gandini, & G. Forman (Eds.), The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (pp. 101-112). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Author's Note:

The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge JoAnn Stanley, former teacher of the 2-year-olds at Park Place Church of God's Children's Center, Anderson, Indiana, for her participation in this project as a demonstration of her dedication to quality programming for young children.

Lynn Staley is Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.
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Author:Staley, Lynn
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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