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Sensory Involvement is the Primary Connector

Your class or tour is finished and you look back wondering, “What did they take away from our time together? Will they remember any of it tomorrow? Will they recall this lesson in connection with a future experience?”

As a docent or interpreter, you studied your collection and practiced touring. You embellished your lesson, and related it to other subject areas. What more can you do?

One technique that can accentuate the impact of your lesson, especially with younger audiences, is to involve several or all of the senses — sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

Let’s suppose your expertise is in art. A knowledge of art-making is helpful. Surely it starts with touching and feeling: carving in rocks; molding clay in one’s hands; swirling and blending pigments; caressing the textures of leather, wool, or canvas.

While this technique may seem immaterial to looking at something like a painting, it need not be. Imagine a landscape. While the colors, mood, and technique may be apparent to the highly trained viewer, they may not be to a younger visitor. Can you help him feel the cool breeze under the trees? Does recalling the unending sound of a stream help him relate to the water depicted? Do the flowers bring to mind a particular fragrance, or garden where he touched, smelled, and listened? Now, imagine a still life. Do the foods invite you to think of their taste — the pleasure or rejection they might bring?

A guide in a nature setting can certainly use sound to his or her advantage. Often, sounds indicate the presence of things unseen — birds, animals, insects. Perhaps helping others to identify and differentiate sounds in the environment can teach them of nature’s many layers.

We tend to discourage touch in some presentations. Yet, think of how forceful a learning tool it is during the earliest years of life. How meaningful physical contact is. Feeling often leads to an emotional reaction that is effective for learning and for remembering later.

We are cautious in encouraging the tasting or smelling of objects. But, with some forethought, a docent can construct an entire lesson using those sensations alone. Honing our sense of taste or smell can help us observe, identify, and imagine. It can enliven any lesson about nature, history, or art.

It is possible that your lesson can be more forceful if you introduce sensory appeals that are seemingly unrelated to your topic. Music can describe an animal (think of Peter and the Wolf); smells can define a time period; sounds can discuss a place.

Remember, every experience, even sensory ones, is interpreted through one’s particular, individual perspective. I once set a copper bowl of red apples on the kitchen table for my children coming home from school. The first one who passed them said, “That’s beautiful!” The second, “I’m hungry!” The third said “seven,” meaning one for each child coming home (he’s been our mathematician ever since).

To engage someone’s senses is to engage their interest. If you can contribute to that when teaching youngsters, your presentation will certainly have been a success!

Mary Ruth G. White is a retired teacher and former docent, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday. She lives in Buchanan, MI.

White, Mary Ruth G. “Sensory Involvement is the Primary Connector,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 20.

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