Building habits through play - With a focus on Oral Hygiene

An important part of growing up is building habits and routines that support our overall development. Habits that help us individually, as well as those that facilitate harmonious living with others. Across our Play Centers in urban and rural parts of Maharashtra, we have seen children practicing a variety of habits depending on their cultural background, age and gender. Some negative habits are counterproductive and impede their development whether in school or at home. To address some of the issues that arise from negative habits, Toybank has developed play-based modules which involve role play, skits, flashcards, picture compositions, arts & crafts, etc.

(Using parts of the body flashcards to teach children ways to stay healthy)
(Using a clock flashcard to teach children about having a daily and timely routine)
To illustrate how these modules have developed positive habits in children, we would like to share about a study we conducted in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, Toybank started Play Centers in 13 Schools in Malwani, the second largest slum in Mumbai. Our baseline research tracked the behavioral background of close to 3,000 children studying across the 13 schools. The children scored low on levels of honesty (18%) among other parameters. We strategically designed modules to teach children about healthy habits involving healthy body, brushing, tidying up, speaking politely, being kind, sharing their board games, gender equality, etc. One year after the intervention, we saw a 42% increase in honesty of the students, where in the teachers noticed a change in the student’s ability to take ownership of their actions. They started acknowledging mistakes, avoided blame-game, took queries to teachers without hesitation, and trusted each other more. We, therefore, believe strongly in play methodologies to empower children.

Learning Oral hygiene through Play

  • Early Interventions Matter

    The foundation for healthy and strong teeth in children is established during the first few years of life itself. Children who are exposed to a poor diet, unhealthy food intake, and inconsistent tooth brushing habits will inevitably suffer from tooth decay problems in the future. This is why an oral hygiene routine, as a way of life, is extremely important to institute at an early age to ensure the development of strong and healthy teeth. India is notoriously plagued by poor dental hygiene in adults, a whopping 52% of adults suffer from oral disorders, and 32% suffer from more serious conditions like caries. This is typically the result of habits such as eating tobacco and neglecting basic brushing/flossing, which trickles down to the next generation.

    The benefits of early dental hygiene are often lost on children, and this effect is more pronounced in at-risk children. According to a study published in 2018 by the King George Medical University at Lucknow, around 10% of children under the age of 10 can be classified as having “poor” oral hygiene, and a more worrying 61% of them complained of having toothaches often. At-risk children may often live in conditions that expose them to deep social inequality which consequently restricts their access to proper sanitation and hygiene facilities. A more systemic problem that these children face is a lack of information and awareness. At a developing age children should be brushing twice a day and avoiding sugary snacks. However, it has been found that 80% of children brush only once a day, if at all, and 71% of them eat biscuits, cakes and other sweet snacks several times a day. This makes the role of social organizations all the more imperative in spreading awareness about oral hygiene techniques and their importance, and improving their access to sanitation is a crucial need of society today.
  • Using the best proven methods for children

    Children’s immediate role models such as teachers, guardians and parents, should be careful about how they teach children tooth-brushing and healthy eating habits. Kids are more responsive to instructions when they’re conveyed in a child-friendly manner. For example, parents should be responsible for visiting their child’s dentist for regular check-ups, something that only a dismal 20% of parents do; the other 80% decide to visit only after painful symptoms appear. The same study also found a significant association between oral hygiene and the education level of parents – an average of 12% more children suffer from poor dental hygiene when their parents are uneducated. Physiological and mental development also affects how children receive information about health. At Toybank, we believe in the power of play as a medium to seamlessly convey vital information to kids.
  • How we do it?

    We often conduct special oral hygiene awareness as part of our Play Sessions with children. This makes the process of inculcating good dental hygiene a fun and enjoyable experience, as compared to a forced or didactic  instruction which is not as well received among children. We want these habits to form a routine in our children’s lives, for which, it is essential that they easily understand the benefits of healthy teeth and recall the techniques that they need to use throughout their life. We believe that the use of play techniques can achieve these benefits better than a lecture or monotonous textbook can. 

  1. Coloring

    The first one is a simple coloring activity. The children are put into pairs and each are handed a laminated sheet with an outline of teeth & lips. The children are then handed a pack of crayons to color in the teeth, over the lamination. They first mark black in places where cavities form when unhealthy food is eaten. Then different colors are used to represent different food items. Brown to mark damages caused by chocolate, yellow for mango, green for leafy vegetables, purple for candies, and so on. We discussed both, food items which strengthen our teeth and those which damage it. Once they are done, they have to wipe off the color using a tissue paper, which represents brushing. The message conveyed through this activity is to demonstrate how unhealthy eating harms the teeth and how brushing with the proper technique can help restore your teeth. They were instructed to use all their strength to wipe off the crayons from the lamination. As they wiped the colors, the teeth started to look clean again. We then told them, this is how your teeth stays clean if you brush daily
  2. Action Songs

    Kids sit in a circle and recite, one line at a time, a simple yet catchy rhyme about brushing all areas of their teeth. The song also reinforces the importance of brushing twice daily, brushing up-down-all around to make sure all the teeth are clean. This technique works well as the children already relate to it.

    Most of them excitingly recite the song and demonstrate a good prior understanding of what constitutes good dental hygiene and what doesn’t. It also serves as a good icebreaker – they tend to open up about their own habits and admit to cheating on their own dental health with unhealthy snacks, but consequently vow to make improvements.
  3. Flashcards

    Children respond quickly to imagery and are fast to make links when presented with multiple, related, pictures. For example, when presented with two images – one of teeth and the other of a fruit – they immediately make the connection between healthy food habits and strong teeth. Another one is using images of taps, toothbrushes and toothpaste to walk them through the habit of toothbrushing, including the importance of strong strokes to thoroughly clean the teeth, and closing the tap to conserve water. In this manner we can use flashcards to portray a narrative that students immediately relate to and will have a better chance of remembering to incorporate in their daily life as a routine.

Play allows a child to express its intrinsic ability to explore and learn new things. Playing board games allows them to navigate and progress from a start, onto a journey and reach an ending - by setting goals, overcoming obstacles by taking honest moral decisions and monitoring their progress. Children’s brains develop at a faster rate between 0 – 5 years and therefore it is imperative to teach important values at this stage. Especially for vulnerable children who are in constant exposure to negativity in various walks of life.

Solely improving access to sanitation facilities does not improve hygiene and health conditions of a community. It is also important to promote hygiene education to help the community develop good habits. Toybank’s habit building module promotes hygiene lessons to children. These lessons not only focus on teaching children how to take care of their own selves but also how to live keeping in mind the development of their society at large.


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