Self-care is an integral tenet of the Montessori practical life education. Teaching our children the importance of caring for their teeth and maintaining dental hygiene is one of the most valuable lessons we can gift them. Hopefully these knowledge and skills will go a long way in enabling them to keep their teeth in great condition and have a beautiful smile for life.
Like all toddlers exerting their independence and opinion, there are times when my toddler resists the teeth-brushing daily regime, refusing to even put the toothbrush into her mouth. Doing these teeth and dental health activities has provided a visual and tactile way for me to explain to her the importance of caring for our teeth, and paved the way for more cooperation.
Teeth & Dental Health Unit Study (10+ Montessori-friendly Activities)
These DIY hands-on activities are framed around three topics:
- Learning about teeth (teeth exploration, anatomy learning, differences between adult vs children's teeth etc)
- Learning about dental health (plaque build-up, cleaning techniques like brushing and flossing, and why dental health is important)
- Learning about dentistry (job of a dentist e.g. cavity removal)
I love how the otherwise 'dry' topics of teeth and dental health can be made fun and easy to remember through play. These activities are also great for Dental Health Month and can be used to help children overcome fear of visiting the dentist. Having knowledge of what a dentist does takes away fear of the unknown.
Learning about teeth:
1. Adult vs Child's Teeth
I used "How Many Teeth?" by Paul Showers as my primary resource book to accompany the activities. In this book, my toddler learnt that children have 20 baby teeth (10 upper and 10 lower), while adults have 32 permanent teeth (16 upper and 16 lower).
I cut out 10 small teeth and 16 bigger teeth from white cardboard and invited my toddler to fit them into pink homemade play dough gums. We practised counting as she stuck the teeth in one by one. This is a great activity for one to one correspondence practice.
Note that homemade play dough with oil as one of its ingredients would 'stain' the cardboard teeth, giving it a 'wet' look, so you might not be able to reuse the cardboard teeth.
Do make the adult gums bigger than the child's gums to fit more cardboard teeth.
During the play conversation, explain to your child the reasons why adults have bigger and more teeth than children -- to bite and chew a wider variety of foods.
My toddler enjoyed this activity and asked to fit in the teeth on repeat.
We also used a handheld mirror, opened our mouths and compared the sizes of our teeth.
Additionally we did a little 'time challenge' whereby she fitted in the child's teeth while I fitted in the adult's teeth and we competed to see who was quicker.
2. Tooth Anatomy
This activity is to share with my toddler what teeth are made of.
I made an enlarged cardboard 'puzzle' with the tooth separable from the gum to make it tactile and labelled the parts.
This was my toddler-friendly explanation on the anatomy of teeth:
- Enamel covers the crown of the tooth, which is what we see above the gum. Enamel covers and protects the sensitive inner parts of teeth. Fun fact: Enamel is the hardest substance in the body!
- Dentine is a sensitive substance that is beneath the enamel and makes up most of the tooth. It is hard, though not as hard as enamel.
- Pulp is where the tooth's blood supply and nerve endings are found. The blood supply keeps the teeth alive and healthy. Nerve endings send messages to our brain so we are aware of whether our food is hot or cold, or if there is decay in the tooth.
- Gum is a connective tissue attached to the tooth and bone.
3. Foods that Benefit/Damage Teeth
This is a sorting activity to educate my toddler on types of foods that help keep our teeth healthy and those that damage the teeth.
I drew images of two teeth -- a happy smiling tooth and a decayed unhappy tooth. I placed two empty wooden containers beneath the teeth for the sorting, and gathered a number of existing toys from my toddler's toy kitchen in another container.
I shared that these are the types of foods that help protect the health of our teeth:
Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (like carrot) These foods keep saliva flowing. Saliva is important for oral health because it contain minerals that neutralize plaque acids that attack our teeth.
Calcium-rich foods (like eggs) They contain calcium which strengthens tooth enamel, defending against erosion and cavities.
Protein-rich foods (like fish) They contain phosphorus which protects and rebuilds tooth enamel.
These are the types of foods we should limit as they damage teeth:
Sweets (like iced cookies and biscuits) They contain refined sugar. Bacteria on our teeth release acids after breaking down sugar, which dissolves tooth enamel leading to decay.
Starchy foods (like bread) Soft foods get trapped in between teeth, and they are simple carbohydrates which break down into simple sugars that bacteria feed on, producing acid which causes tooth decay.
I mostly mentioned examples of foods most commonly found in my toddler's diet to drive relevance. You could tailor the choice of sorting foods to include items your children are familiar with.
4. Tooth Replacement
This activity to share about the teeth development process. It might be particularly informative for kindergarteners (about age of 6 years), as they might be experiencing baby teeth loss.
For the setup, I cut out a rectangular pink piece of paper to represent the gums, and made three small baby teeth as well as one big adult tooth. In the middle of the pink paper, I made a horizontal slit for the adult tooth to 'push' out the baby tooth. I glued two baby teeth on each side of the slit.
I sat a baby tooth in the slit, and from the back, pushed an adult tooth beneath it until I edged the baby tooth out of the gums.
I shared about how baby tooth loss is a natural process and sign of healthy development.
For kindergarteners experiencing tooth replacement, you could offer some reassurance about how there is generally little or no discomfort in the tooth loss process, though sometimes gums might feel tender.
The book showed an illustration of the Tooth Fairy so I mentioned this mythology. The Tooth Fairy story is not Montessori-aligned as it is not rooted in realism and is fantastical, so explain this story to young children at your discretion.
If you decide to share this story, you could explain that the Tooth Fairy mythology is about getting a coin/present in exchange for a tooth. The story could help to soften the experience of tooth loss for children and make them excited to look forward to their new teeth.
I also shared that permanent adult teeth will keep coming in till around 21 years of age. Unlike baby teeth, adult teeth can't get replaced, so we need to take proper care of them to last our lifetime.
5. Teeth Counting
My toddler really enjoyed the teeth insertion activity, so I made another activity for her to 'grow more teeth' in gums.
For the setup, I glued pink strips of 'gum' onto a cardboard piece, numbered them at the side, and illustrated yellow dot sticker 'teeth'. I used yellow because I ran out of white dot stickers, feel free to use white to add more realism.
This activity made for a great counting and one to one correspondence math activity.
The book talked about how newborn and young infants don't have teeth as they have a liquid diet, drinking just milk in their early days.
As toddlers grow and become exposed to a variety of solids, they start to sprout teeth in order to chew their food.
I also talked about how the 'teething' process could be uncomfortable, sharing with my toddler anecdotes of how she experienced hers (night wakes, lots of biting, finger in mouth to rub against her gums).
One topic I didn't bring up in this exploration of teeth was the 4 different types of teeth we have and their purposes (incisors for cutting and chopping food, canine teeth for tearing food, premolars for crushing and grinding food as well as molars which work with the tongue to help mash food up until it's ready to be swallowed).
A Dab of Glue has resources for this topic about different types of teeth.
Learning about dental health:
6. Teeth Brushing
I used the bottom of white plastic beverage bottles to create this enlarged model of teeth. This idea originated from Rebekah Batz.
I stuck two inverted bottles into a cardboard box that has pink construction paper pasted over it to represent pink gums. I invited my toddler to use her black washable marker to draw plaque on the teeth (she generously drew over the gums too!) and saved an old toothbrush for this activity.
After wetting the toothbrush, it was easy to scrub the black 'plaque' marks away using the toothbrush.
After wiping clean with a wet wipe, this activity could be repeated time and again.
I like how this is a visual way to explain about plaque buildup on teeth to my toddler, and how it demonstrates the effectiveness of teeth brushing in removing the plaque.
During incidents of toothbrush resistance, I would bring up this activity or even invite her to redo this activity to explain why we need to build teeth brushing into our daily dental hygiene routine.
Save this teeth model for the subsequent two activities related to flossing and plaque removal.
7. Teeth Flossing
Using the same teeth model as the activity above, I provided a few felt food pieces as well as a yarn string for my toddler to understand more about flossing.
This idea originated again from Rebekah Batz.
In place of felt food, you could use cardboard/crepe paper made food as well.
This activity requires modeling so demonstrate how to place the floss in the middle of the teeth beneath the stuck food scrap and lift the floss up to get rid of the food scrap until your child is ready to try the flossing on his/her own.
8. Plaque Removal
This activity helps my child visualise how bad bacteria (plaque) looks like on teeth. I placed flattened yellow play dough on the bottom of the white bottles to represent plaque/tartar. Then I invited my toddler to scrape off the plaque/tartar.
During the activity, I explained what plaque is. Dental plaque is a sticky, colorless or pale yellow film that forms on our teeth. When we eat, bacteria in plaque use the sugars in food to produce acids that eat away at our tooth enamel, resulting in decay.
I also shared about tartar (hard plaque) which is what accumulates on your teeth when plaque is not consistently removed.
I also touched upon the concept of dental scaling which is when the dentist removes plaque and tartar on our teeth.
My toddler used a wooden scraper for the activity to scrape off the 'plaque'. An old toothbrush works as well.
Learning about dentistry:
Learning about dentists and what they do as a profession helps children understand about different occupations and the knowledge might even help children feel less nervous or anxious about a dental visit.
9. Dentist Toolkit Matching Puzzle
This matching activity is to show my toddler that the dentist's toolkit holds many different types of equipment. These tools enable the dentist to perform many treatments related to cleaning and treating teeth and gums.
Note: It might be inaccurate to include the toothbrush/toothpaste which is more for home care, but I included them nonetheless for a sense of familiarity and relevance.
The activity setup is simple -- tracing the outlines of the different dental tools on cardboard and inviting my toddler to match them while explaining their different functions.
This visual differentiation activity sharpens cognitive abilities. My toddler even requested to trace the outlines of the tools on her own.
The dentist toolkit in this setup is from Tresbro.
After this matching activity, my toddler was inspired to do some pretend dental work on her soft toys.
10. Cavity Removal
This activity is a fun way to learn how a dentist removes and fills cavities to treat patients with tooth decay.
Cavities are damaged areas in the tooth enamel that result in holes.
I explained the process as dentists cleaning away the decay inside the cavities usually with a drill, before filling it in with dental filling.
I used an egg crate to represent teeth, and drew pained expressions for each 'tooth'. Then, I placed an illustrated dot sticker (with a mean looking expression to represent cavities) on the top of each 'tooth'.
I invited my toddler to place anaesthetic to numb the gums (represented by the pill toy), then scrape/drill away at the plaque stickers and remove them before placing the stickers on a dish at the side. The final step was to sticker dental filling in the cavity's place (represented by green dot stickers).
I modeled the cavity removal and filling process as well as explained it a few times before inviting my toddler to take over. My toddler enjoyed this pretend dentist play tremendously.
I hope your child enjoys these hands-on and tactile activities in this teeth and dental health unit study!
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Note: All dental information cited above are from research and book readings. Please visit your dentist for professional advice.
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.