Plaque and tartar might not be the most exciting classroom topics for third-graders. But when the message comes from puppets with names such as Count Plaqula and Braces the Bat, learning suddenly becomes more fun.
The third-graders in Isabel Feibert’s class at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School heard from the puppets and their human buddy Alex Gums during a presentation last week. The classroom play was one of hundreds of performances children in Portland and Southwest Washington will receive on a variety of health topics this school year, thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program, working in collaboration with Oregon Children’s Theatre.
The program has traveled across the region for the past 10 years. But for the first time, the group is tackling the topic of oral health through presentations of “The Adventures of the Tartar Patrol,” which is aimed at students in kindergarten through third grade.
The students were led through the adventure by Alex Gums — played by Danielle Pecoff — who is a member of the Flossington Youth Tooth Troop, which goes by the unofficial name “Tartar Patrol.” The Tartar Patrol strives to ensure people have clean teeth, healthy gums and bright smiles.
The troop works to educate people about plaque and tartar.
Plaque is the sticky, colorless film of bacteria on teeth. As plaque builds up, it hardens into tartar. If the plaque is not removed by daily brushing and flossing and turns into tartar, it has to be removed by a dental hygienist or dentist.
Alex traveled to Molar Mountain to find Count Plaqula — rumored to be the most dentally distressed person on Molar Mountain — and help Plaqula to correct his dismal dental hygiene practices.
After meeting the reluctant Plaqula, Alex enlisted the help of Feibert’s third-graders. Together — and with the help of Plaqula’s best friend, Braces the Bat — they worked to convince Count Plaqula to go to the dentist. (Plaqula and Braces were voiced by Tricia Castañeda-Gonzales.)
Count Plaqula reveals to Alex and the kids that he’s scared of the dentist. As a wee vampire, the dentist found some plaque on the Count’s teeth.
“I was sure I was dentally dooooomed,” Plaqula told Alex.
“You can have a little plaque and even some cavities and still be OK,” Alex told Plaqula. “The dentist is your dental superhero.”
With that, Alex and the students educated Plaqula about the do’s and don’ts of good oral health.
• Do brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes each time with fluoride toothpaste.
• Don’t share drinks, because that’s a way to share germs and bacteria.
• Do floss at least once a day to clean the sides of the teeth that toothbrushes can’t reach.
• And don’t drink too much soda, juice or other sugary drinks because they can cause tooth decay.
Armed with the information from Alex and the kids, Plaqula agreed to go to the dentist.
Plaqula wasn’t the only one who learned a few things. Nine-year-old Jackson Baker said Alex taught him some good tips, too.
“You’re supposed to brush your teeth two times a day for two minutes, so two-by-two,” Jackson said.
While that was new information, Jackson said he already brushes his teeth four times a day: when he wakes up, after breakfast, after lunch (or when he gets home from school) and after dinner.
“I already had cavities and went to the dentist and they said ‘Brush your teeth,’ and now I don’t have any cavities,” Jackson explained.
Nine-year-old Jason Moreno learned some important tips, too.
“Do not drink soda, or it’s going to make your teeth break apart,” Jason said. “Because sometimes I drink soda a little bit.”
Now, though, Jason said he’s going to drink water instead.
Eight-year-old Kaitlyn Pyatt thought the play was funny, but she already knew the dental do’s and don’ts.
“I just had a dentist appointment, and they told me a lot of that stuff,” she said.
Each year, about 35,000 kids in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the region learn about healthy lifestyles through the Educational Theatre Program. The program is also beginning to offer workshops for the adults in the schools, said Marci Crowson, the Educational Theatre Program artistic director at Oregon Children’s Theatre.
Kaiser underwrites the entire cost of the productions, ensuring the shows are free for schools, she said.
“It’s pretty visionary for a health care organization to think of arts and theater as a beneficial tool,” Crowson said.
The program topics cover health issues, including healthy food choices, physical activity, bullying, conflict resolution, body image and mental well-being. The goal is to present important health information in fun, interactive ways, said Molly Haynes, Kaiser’s director of community health. And since mouth pain is one of the top reasons kids miss school, the team hopes the information in the latest presentation will stick with kids and help prevent dental problems, she said.
“We know that kids learn through theater. They learn through interaction,” Haynes said. “It’s those interactions that help those messages be stickier.”