Have you ever met a child who always remembers to brush? Not likely. Helping children develop good preventive oral health care habits can be very difficult. But it is a common goal that should be shared by both parents and childcare providers alike. The real task is to make brushing and flossing fun! Creating good oral hygiene habits at an early age is essential to the healthy development of a child's teeth and gums. Childcare facilities can play an integral role in shaping children's attitudes and practices concerning proper oral hygiene.
Finding a dentist or dental hygienist to play an active role in supporting your program's efforts is an important factor in starting a dental education program. There are many ways that you can identify a health professional in your community to help:
- Ask the parents of children in your care if they know a dentist or dental hygienist who has a reputation for working well with children. The local school system or your facility's health care advisor or childcare health consultant also may know of such a professional.
- If your childcare program is near a large urban area, you may find a dentist who specializes in pediatric dental care, known as a pedodontist.
- Contact the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (see Resources) for assistance.
- Many recent dental school graduates are eager to become involved in preventive programs of all types to gain exposure to potential new clients and help establish their practices. New graduates also may have the time available to work with you because they are not yet as busy as more established practitioners.
- If you cannot identify a dentist or dental hygienist, your local pediatrician or family physician may be able to help by providing basic information about oral health care.
Once you locate the name of a dentist or hygienist, you may first want to ask the dentist's receptionist if the dentist or hygienist make presentations to public or private gatherings. If the answer is yes, ask whether he or she may be willing to create a relationship with your facility. Tell him or her the age and number of children in your childcare program, whether or not any compensation is being offered, and what you are hoping to gain by developing this relationship.
Developing the Program
Once you have established a relationship with an oral hygiene expert, there are many ways your childcare program and a dental care consultant can work together. Educating the children, caregivers, and parents about tooth and gum care--and making it fun--should be your first priority. Key messages to teach the children include that everyone should brush thoroughly at least two times a day and should visit a dentist regularly to have their teeth professionally cleaned and examined. The importance of flossing and proper nutrition also should be stressed. Children should be taught these basics early so they can establish good oral hygiene habits for life.
Some dentists may invite children to make a "field trip" to their office. Others may offer colorful pages to remind children about healthy teeth or provide toothbrushes for the children in your care.
Make sure you can "practice what you preach" in the childcare center. If your program does not provide toothbrushes, ask parents to provide children's toothbrushes with covers or holders to keep them hygienic and label them with each child's name. Make a point of having the staff brush their teeth after meals with the children.
Making it Fun!
The key to motivating children is to make the lesson fun. Every member of the childcare staff can be involved in making it fun to teach children about brushing and flossing. The range of activities is limited only by your imagination.
- Create your own character or story (see Sidebar), or have the children develop stories about tooth-characters they create.
- Use art-related activities such as painting or coloring to teach dental care.
- Use the motions of brushing (the "toothbrush wiggle") to create dances or other games during physical activity play times.
- Search the Internet for companies that sell dental care products like tooth paste and tooth brushes. Often, these companies will be happy to send you introductory kits or creative dental education materials for your facility.
With a little effort on your part, children's experiences in childcare can play an important part in their attitudes toward good health and oral hygiene habits for the rest of their lives.
Meet Toby The Tooth!
As a young dentist in my hometown, my practice was located behind the elementary school I had attended. The childcare program at a local church also was within walking distance. My staff and I had an idea about how to fill our occasionally sparse appointment book. We developed a story about Toby the Tooth, illustrated by yours truly, that discussed Toby's friends Joe Sucker and Candy Sugar. These friends had a mouth-shaped swimming pool Toby liked to play in. One day, he forgot his mother's warnings about washing off after playing. Toby woke up with a headache that ultimately was fixed by good old Dr. Bob.
My staff and I would have a great time flipping through the large pages of the sketchbook we developed and would have everyone clapping when the story was over. Next, we would have three of the children wear cardboard tooth cut outs with cavities on one side, and another volunteer would use an inflatable toothbrush to scrub the outside surfaces of the teeth. When the tooth-brushing was completed, the cavity on one of the teeth would be turned around to reveal a nice clean tooth. Then we would have two other volunteers attend to the cavity between the other two teeth using some white nylon webbing in a procedure we dubbed "the Floss Dance." We all wore our office uniforms to help the children identify the dentist with a fun and friendly atmosphere, and we left the children with travel toothbrushes, a white plywood tooth with enough holes to hold the brushes, and of course some Toby The Tooth drawings for them to color. Brushing after lunch became fun when they remembered Dr. Bob & The Floss Dance.
- Dr. Bob (Dr. Robert Weston)
By Dr. Robert Weston, DDM
Dr. Robert Weston is a licensed dentist.
American Dental Association, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; 312-440-2500; www.ada.org. The ADA has a number of resources for use with children including videos, coloring sheets, and a flossing calendar.
American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, 211 East Chicago Ave. #700, Chicago, IL 60611-2663; 312-337-2169; www.aapd.org. Contact the AAPD for brochures to use in preparing activities for children and as well as information for parents.