I never imagined my work day would begin heading off to a school with an oversized dog puppet (Charlie) in my car, to present good dental health habits to children. For over 25 years, Dental Associates of Walpole has offered an educational and fun, free program to the community known as the Smart Smiles School Program. I joined as the Community Program Presenter about 6 years ago and have enjoyed seeing all the smiles since!
Last year I visited over 8,200 kids from twelve towns in the surrounding Walpole area. Smart Smiles Program travels to preschools, day care centers, elementary schools, libraries, mom’s groups and most recently to middle schools. We also visit special needs classrooms and a school for the hearing impaired. Through interactive games and demonstrations Smart Smiles provides valuable information in a fun way. Teachers and caregivers often tell me they are grateful that such a program is provided by our dental office. School nurses will call to request a Smart Smiles visit in a classroom to address issues a child may be having with poor hygiene.
I love to see the excitement on a child’s face when they see Charlie come in the room, sometimes recognizing him from a previous year’s school visit. We all know how children love to share and tell stories about themselves and their family. I’ve heard everything from, “I never brush in the morning, my mom won’t let me”, “I brush 6 times a day”, “my brother has 10 cavities” “why does grandma take her teeth out?”, “my dad drinks beer with his dinner” to “is that a yo-yo?” as I’m holding up floss. Toddlers to elementary age kids enjoy practicing their tooth brushing skills on Charlie and his puppet friends. We play healthy vs. unhealthy snack games and maybe convince a few kiddos to eliminate some of those sticky, gummie fruit snacks! Charlie is the patient during a demonstration with our Dr. Petrie puppet to learn about what to expect at the dentist and hopefully make their visits to the dentist a more comfortable and confident one. The goody bags for everyone at the end of the visit are always a hit!
Two years ago, we launched a Smart Smiles Program for middle schools. The intent being to compliment the school’s existing health curriculum and address issues teenagers are facing today. I’ve been pleased to see how students are so engaged and open to discuss areas such as vaping, hygiene habits, what amount of sugar is in their favorite drinks, orthodontics and the importance of wearing a mouthguard. The images presented of injuries or damaged teeth can get quite a reaction, but I also believe they start conversations and leave a lasting impression.
The greatest fulfillment for me is when I hear from our hygienists about young patients that come in for a visit saying, “I’m brushing and flossing just like Charlie told me to.” As well as the parent that shares “I couldn’t get my child to brush and after their school visit they insist on it and want healthy snacks.” To have a child associate a fun experience, even for the most skeptical little person, with the dentist office is a success. I also enjoy the hand written thank-you notes from kindergarteners and the occasional remark when I’m out and about at Stop & Shop, “Mom, there’s the dentist lady!”
Dental Associates of Walpole believes education is the key to prevention of dental disease. Charlie and I will start back to school visits this month to encourage those healthy smiles!
Looking forward to seeing you in the classroom,
By Liz Rocha, Community Program Presenter