You don’t have to be a skilled artist, poet, or musician to train your brain like one. Even when you take a break from formal schooling during the summer months, you can still keep brains active from the comfort of your porch or backyard. In just a week, spending as little as five minutes per day, you can train your senses to take in more of the world’s subtle beauty.
“The LORD’s judgments are truth, all of them just. More desired than gold, than abundant fine gold…” (Psalms 19:9b-10a*)
Today, you will focus on what you see. If your family is like mine was, you will need to spend some time running around before you get started. Throw a ball, chase bugs, or walk in the sunshine. Float on your back in the neighborhood pool. Run to a nearby park and then swing until your legs are tired. Run until you’re exhausted; then, find a comfortable seat outside and get ready to observe.
If your children are little, start with colors they know by name. Look around you and identify as many colors as you can. For example, right now, I see a red car, a yellow awning, and a blue shirt. I see green trees and gray asphalt. I see brown chairs and purple flowers. Make it a game to see who can find the most colors in your small slice of the world.
If your children are older, ask for more specifics. Add adjectives such as “light,” “dark,” “watery,” or “bright” to hone in. Artists blend colors to in just this way to capture light and shadow. Or, try to find similes (explicit comparisons). The woman’s shirt is as blue as the Caribbean Sea. The chairs are a dark brown, like coffee beans. Writers love to use comparisons to help the reader see what they see.
“With trumpets and the sound of ram’s horn, sound loud before the king, the LORD.” (Psalm 98:6)
The next day, focus on what you hear. With little children, try to pick out specific sounds from the general noise. For example, right now I hear car engines, the wind, a door closing, and birds chirping. Musicians train their ear by listening to classical music and picking out the different instruments. The natural world has symphonies that can teach you to listen well.
If you are indoors, you can make up your own games. Put out a tray of raw vegetables to snack on. One at a time, close your eyes and try to distinguish the different vegetables based on the crunching sounds they make when bitten.
With older children, describe sounds in more detail, adding adjectives, similes, alliteration (words that contain the same sounds), and onomatopoeia, a long name for words that sound like what they describe. In my example, the cars whir by, getting louder and then fading as they pass. The wind makes the leaves flap against each other like the pages of a book. The door thuds against the frame and then squeezes shut with a sucking sound.
“Look, how good and how pleasant is the dwelling of brothers together. Like goodly oil on the head coming down over the beard.” (Psalm 133:1-2a)
Take this day to get up and walk around your environment, focusing on what you can feel and touch. The world is not a flat surface. Poets use texture to bring setting to life with just a few words.
Choose a contained area (a room of the house, the front porch, or the inside of a car).
With little children, start with simple opposites like “rough” and “smooth,” “cold” and “hot,” or “wet” and “dry.” The sidewalk is rough. The grass is wet and cool. The car door is smooth. Note that you are describing sensations as well as textures.
With older children, seek greater detail. For example, my chair is made of woven strips with a waxy coat. The road is gritty, with patches of newer, smooth pavement on top of the old. A car door might have subtle dimples in the rubber.
“Taste and see that the LORD is good, happy the man who shelters in Him.” (Psalm 34:9, trans. Alter)
Today, you will focus on tastes. If you have a garden, select some of the produce and sample each item. If you don’t have a garden, try visiting a farmer’s market and choosing two items you don’t recognize. With young children, determine if the foods are sweet or sour. With older children, compare the flavors to other, familiar items.
If you are feeling brave or if the day is rainy, set up a blind taste test in the kitchen. Cut three or four different foods into small, uniform portions (cheese, apples, carrot, and avocado, for example). Using only texture and taste, describe and identify each mystery snack.
With older children, pause over a meal to name as many flavors as you can from a soup or salad or dessert. Chefs are intimately familiar with the flavor of spices and herbs, and they blend them together just like a chemist.
“May my prayer stand as incense before You, my uplifted hands as the evening offering.” (Psalm 141: 1b)
The last day is all about smells. As a culture, we spend so much time trying to mask unpleasant odors that it can be difficult to reclaim this natural sense, so don’t worry if this exercise is difficult at first. To practice, close your eyes and take deep breaths of air, alternating between nose and mouth.
Categories may help your little ones narrow down what they smell. Is it an organic scent, like flowers or dirt? Is it mechanical, like exhaust or hot metal? Is it chemical, like cleaning solutions? Is it artificial, like perfume or scented candles? Right now, I can smell car exhaust, coffee, and someone’s perfume.
With older children, use adjectives and similes to add detail to your description. Think outside the box—don’t limit yourself to smell-related adjectives like “stinky” and “sweet.” The smell of coffee roasting might be “sharp” and “bitter” or “soft” and “warm.” The wafting perfume overwhelms my nose like walking into a candle store.
“Sing to the LORD a new song, for wonders He has done.” (Psalm 98:1a)
These few minutes spent exercising your senses can help your entire family become better listeners, spark creativity, sharpen focus, and improve memory and attention. So, at the end of the week, be sure to take time to celebrate your newfound skills. As a family, write a short story with your backyard as the setting, full of rich detail. Paint a picture of something you have observed. Drum a rhythm that matches the ambient sounds around you. Pick a bouquet of flowers to perfume the house or put together a picnic with as many colors, aromas, and flavors as you can amass. In whatever you do, enjoy your family!
*Alter, Robert, trans. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.
CCMM. Nature Sketch Journal. https://classicalconversationsbooks.com/products/as040
Greenholt, Jen, ed. Words Aptly Spoken: Short Stories. https://classicalconversationsbooks.com/products/bs038
Treasure, Julian. “Five ways to listen better.” TED Talk. July 2011. http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better