Last week I left the office and decided to go for a walk around the lake. I set off and although the flies were enough to drive me crazy, the quiet and the view of the boats was just the relaxation I needed. I had walked quite a distance when I was hit by a smell. It wasn't a bad smell, nor would I say it was a good smell. But it was a familiar smell. It wasn't something that I smell every day and I really couldn't (and still can't - although it was some type of tree!) put my finger on what it was, but one whiff and I was instantly taken back to my childhood. I felt as though I were 5 years old again. This then evoked memories of my preschool - a breezy, light filled, warm, open place that I loved. That smell bought back images of my teachers, memories of playing on the huge timber fort, the three coloured balloons that told me that was my locker and my hand towel in the bathroom, even the time that one of my friends wet the bed (those old hessian stretcher beds) at rest time!
How is it that this one smell bought back such happy memories?
Technically speaking, it all comes down to the brain. The olfactory bulb in the brain is part of the limbic system, an area often referred to as the "emotional brain" and is closely linked to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. The reason that smells trigger emotional responses or memories is due to our tendency to link a smell to an event or person or moment when we first smell it. And the reason we tend to be taken back to childhood? This is often the time when we experience a smell for the very first time.
This isn't the first time a smell has triggered an early childhood memory for me and I am sure it won't be the last. Whenever I smell a vegemite sandwich I am taken back to preschool! But for some reason, when this happened last week it made me think about what smells will evoke memories for children in care right now. So many services that I visit are sterile environments - often there is an overuse of Glen20. So in 20years when children smell latex gloves or Glen20 or disinfectant... they will be transformed back to childhood. I don't think I like the sound of that.
In addition to the memory effect, smells also have the ability to impact on our moods and wellbeing. Research shows that smell can affect blood sugar levels, concentration and stress levels and our health. Therefore, it is crucial that we give thought to the smells our children experience in our care. Do they have the opportunity to smell trees, fresh cut grass or food cooking away? If we need to use items for cleaning or making unpleasant smells disappear, do we give thought to what we use?
Spend some time "sniffing" in your service and ask yourself... are these the smells that will positively impact on mood, health and children's memories?
By Nicole Halton
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