Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates your young child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. Sensory activities facilitate exploration and naturally encourage children to use scientific processes while they play, create, investigate and explore. (https://www.educationalplaycare.com/blog/sensory-play-important-development/)
“What,” you might ask, “does sensory play have to do with dental health?”
Dental health is all about keeping the teeth and mouth clean, right? It is, but have you ever thought about the fact that you can teach your child about taking care of her teeth by letting her make a mess? … by letting him get “dirty”?
Start out by finding a tray (something that emulates the tray used by the hygienist at the dental office to hold tools for cleaning and other work). Now, your next task is to add several items to the tray that have to do with the mouth and dental care. Here are a few ideas of items to include on your sensory tray:
- String or dental floss
- Toothbrushes (new and in the package)
- Toothpaste – at least two tubes
- a small cup
- A pick and dental mirror … sometimes you can find these at a Dollar store.
- plastic teeth, if you can find them…but they’re not 100% a necessity
- but, you’ll want *something* tooth-like, whether it’s a plastic doll or just little white rocks. Use you’re imagination. I thought of marshmallows as an option, but decided not to recommend them since, well, they are not exactly a prime choice for promoting dental health.
- and … If you’ve never seen the Doctor Drill ‘n Fill dentist kit by Play-Doh, look it up and seriously consider purchasing one.
Don’t forget to involve your child in setting up her tray. What makes sensory play sensory play is that the child gets the opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the items associated with the activity. If you do all of the work and don’t allow him to touch and manipulate the items, then the sensory part of the play is lost.
Talk about each item and what it is used for. You might make this into a game by asking him, “What do you think this is for?” Don’t discourage any creative or “wrong” answers.
Consider different games you can play, such as your child closing their eyes, you placing an item in their hand, and then the child guessing what the item is. Or, you can play a simple game of “What is it?” where one of you chooses an item but does not tell the second player what the item is. The second player subsequently asks a series of questions to try to figure out which item the first player has chosen. “Is it long?” “Is it soft?” “Does it have bristles?” “Is it white?” etc.
Keep the fun up by beginning to manipulate the items … let the child open the toothbrushes and toothpaste. Let them move things around. Let them dump everything off of the tray. Anything goes (except maybe throwing and eating). The idea is to HAVE FUN PLAYING.
Eventually, the cap of the toothpaste is going to come off. At this point, you may want to tell your child something like, “The toothpaste has to stay on the tray or we will have to put the cap back on.” Depending on your child, this may result in a disappointed setting-down of the toothpaste on the tray, or it may result in a mischievous smile followed by toothpaste being squeezed out onto the try. If your child is of the first aire, smile and say something like, “Can I try something?” and then proceed to squeeze some of the toothpaste out onto the tray.
Hold on for the fun ride.
Because that toothpaste is going to get squirted all over the tray.
Cheer your child on as they discover the fun of making a toothpaste mess. Encourage them to get ALL of the toothpaste out of the tube. This will require fine motor skills, something important for successful self-brushing and flossing of teeth. Talk to them about this. Encourage them to use the toothbrushes to play in the toothpaste. Let her touch the toothpaste and experience all of the awesome gooey-ness of the substance.
See. Hear. Touch. Taste.
The taste can be a bit tricky here, since you certainly don’t want your child to eat toothpaste. But, you can allow for a quick attempt at toothbrushing and use that opportunity to talk about the importance of not swallowing toothpaste. Or, you can allow for a fingertip taste.
What happens if your child fills the small cup with toothpaste?
I don’t know. But don’t be surprised if this happens.
As your child explores the items and PLAYS with them, remind yourself: This is play. This is for fun. and try to keep from stopping the creativity. Try, as much as possible, to keep from directing it, too. Sometimes, you may have to give direction or a gentle nudge, but one of the glories of sensory play is that it is child-driven. You may find that your child will ask questions like, “Can I touch the toothpaste?”
At some point, it will be clean-up time. Involve your child in this part of the activity. Have fun trying to wash all of that toothpaste off of her hands AND all of the other items that may have been coated in it. Ask her if she thinks that squeezing out all of the toothpaste that’s in the bathroom is a good idea. Gently but firmly let her know that this was a special time of getting to play with toothpaste and that she is free to ask you to do the activity again some day, but that if she chooses to use the bathroom toothpaste in this manner, then it is problematic. (How you would deal with this will depend on your particular parenting style.)
Pack away all of the dental play supplies into a bag when they’re clean and dry, then make a trip to the bathroom and brush your teeth together.