health / life science / mouth / teeth

Sink Your Teeth Into Learning

Is brushing teeth in your household a fun and routine activity or is it a struggle? Either way, teeth brushing is an essential habit to develop among young children, and if your child resists, I hope you can persist.


Discussions of teeth, beyond the question of “did you brush?”, can also be routine. Teeth are fascinating to young children. Unlike some aspects of children’s bodies, their teeth can be readily seen and felt, their function, or chewing food, is obvious, and children are acutely aware of teeth in emotional expressions, such as a grimace or a smile. Just look at their drawings of faces that often include gigantic teeth! In animals, a pet dog’s show of teeth can appear to be a smile or a show of teeth can represent a threatening stance among wild animals. Those amazing artists who create the characters for animated movies know how to draw teeth to maximum effect in capturing emotions. Think of that sparkle off a character’s tooth. What comes to mind?


The topic of teeth provides a great foray into learning about growth and development, the biochemistry of our mouths, and comparisons with other animals.


The subject of teeth is also a terrific jumping off point for discussing several issues of health. Children with dental problems grow up to be adults with dental problems. Furthermore, dental health is a window into our more general health. So early and frequent discussions of teeth are interesting in their own right, but in the grander scheme of things, the hope is that discussions of teeth will serve a secondary function of leading to an understanding of and improvement of overall health behaviors.


There is a method to the madness. The following suggestions fit a pattern that should become easier to follow if you have read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” pages…all of them. For the most part, we just want you to explore the topic of teeth with your child if she shows interest. We hope the that these ideas will help you initiate a conversation and follow through with playful hands-on ways to make this happen.



Where to begin?  The best way to start an inquiry is with a question.  Hopefully, your child will ask one, but if not, see if you can detect what he might be curious about.


What are teeth?

Where do they come from?

What are they made of?

Can I lose all of them?

Will they grow back?

How many do I have?

How do I take care of them?

How do you get cavities and what does the dentist do to a cavity if she finds one in my mouth?



A good starting place is inviting your child to rub his tongue over his teeth in the front and back. What does he feel?

Find the language to describe teeth as they connect to the roof of the mount, the top edges, and molars in the back.

Next, use fingers to feel teeth describing the experience of touching or tapping on a tooth.

Look in a mirror, what do you see? Yes, there are teeth, but what do they look like? Are they all the same shape, size, or color? Are there pairs? Are they crooked or straight, close together or are there noticeable gaps?

Hopefully, your child does not have any fillings yet but invite him to look into people’s mouths observing the color and nature of those fillings (with permission). Seeing fillings can be a good incentive to brush and floss.

Find someone with braces and observe what those look like and what they might be doing to the teeth. Encourage your child to ask that person questions about what braces feel like and how they are for their teeth.

Remember to try other senses in making observations. We have discussed what is seen or felt, but what do teeth sound like when gnashing together? Do they smell when in the mouth or after they have fallen out? Do teeth have a distinctive taste? Probably not, but try describing the taste of the toothpaste or other products your child uses for keeping teeth clean.

Once your child has observed and/or drawn a picture, allow her to examine your teeth, a sibling’s teeth, or another relative or friend’s teeth (with permission).

If you have saved baby teeth that have come out, take a look at these, describing the parts that fit into the gum, as well as other parts.

If your dentist will share them with you, see if you can obtain X-rays of teeth in the jaw.



Of course, one’s own teeth are the most interesting, but comparing them to other teeth, human or not, should open a whole new way of thinking about them.


Find images of teeth online. Find illustrations or photos of a set of first or baby teeth, new teeth in a school-aged child, adult teeth, and dentures. Include animal teeth, or perhaps the teeth of Neanderthals or early humanoids for comparison.

Can you print these on cards, or glue those images on cards for sorting?

Suggest to your child that she sort those cards into teeth that are alike or different.

With experience, you can invite categorizations of teeth belonging to animals eating only vegetables versus meats. If you can find an image of teeth belonging to a hippopotamus, ask why a vegetarian needs such sharp and protruding teeth.

Compare the teeth of a variety of predators, such as lions versus hyenas, or crocodiles versus sharks. What variations are there and why might those differences exist?

Compare teeth on the upper versus the lower jaw. Compare adult and baby teeth, particularly the roots. Compare teeth and fangs, or teeth that inject venom.

Find pictures of food items and sort according to whether they are good (help clean your teeth) or bad (stick to your teeth and cause tooth decay) for teeth.





Counting is a great place to start.

Suggest that your child counts the teeth on her top jaw versus the bottom. She can count all the teeth in her mouth versus your mouth.

Count and record the number of teeth in the mouths of those animals you used for comparing and classifying. Create a graph of smallest to the largest number of teeth in their mouths.

Measure the height or width of front teeth on top and on the bottom. How do these compare? Measure the same front tooth belonging to other family members. Whose is biggest? Smallest?

If your child is losing her baby teeth, measure the new teeth versus the old. Keep track of the number of days between the loss of each tooth. Which go first and which fall out later?

Start with an image of the arrangement of baby teeth in a child’s mouth. Such images can be found on-line and printed, or invite your child to create her own larger drawing of those teeth. When teeth fall out, black them out of the image, noting the placement of that tooth in the overall array of teeth.

Create math formulas. There are 20 baby teeth. When the first one falls out, the equation is 20 – 1 = ?, or how many remain in her mouth. When the second one falls out 19 – 1 = ? (or 20 – 2 = ?). Keep track of the remaining number of teeth with subtraction exercises or counting the teeth on the chart.

Take a poll and ask family members, friends, and neighbors what kind of toothpaste they use. Chart the results.

Take a poll and ask family members, friends, and neighbors how many fillings they have (or if they will let you, count those fillings). Chart the results.



Experiment with teeth?  How else do you learn?


If your child is willing to part with a baby tooth, a thought-provoking demonstration of tooth decay is easy to provide.

Invite your child to drop that tooth into a bottle of soda or a soft drink. You may want to date the bottle but explain to your child that she will have to wait for results. Set the bottle aside, checking the tooth periodically.

Make observations of what happens to the tooth as it decays, discussing what is seen or drawing a series of pictures. Make sure to discuss how you can prevent decay by brushing teeth and removing bacteria that breaks down and creates acid that harms our teeth.


A similar experiment was described in kitchen experiences: acids and bases involving an eggshell (or bone) and acid. Egg shells and teeth, while not composed of the same materials, may still seem similar enough to your child to allow for an understanding of the effects of acids.


A nice variation on this experiment is to start with two eggs. Place one of those eggs in an over-the-counter fluoride solution for several minutes. Then place that egg and the other not treated egg in acid (vinegar or soda or soft drink). Watch what happens and describe the difference between the two eggs.


Ask your child to feel his teeth with his tongue or a finger. Then ask him to brush his teeth and make another observation. What happened or what changes?


Take a couple of sips of ice water. How do the teeth feel? Take a couple of sips of warm water (not too hot to burn the tongue). How do teeth feel? How do teeth feel hot and cold sensations? This discussion may require that you look up a diagram of teeth showing the nerves embedded inside. Also, discuss the role of blood supply in keeping teeth alive and healthy.


When eating something, such as an apple, take a bite and chew it with the teeth in the front of your mouth. With the next bite, chew it in the back of the mouth with the molars. What is the difference? Which teeth work best for biting an apple versus biting a carrot? Which teeth work best for chewing meat versus eating cake?


Does brushing your teeth remove all the food items that can be trapped? After brushing, ask your child to floss. Was anything left behind?


Experiment with a variety of letters or word, trying to imagine what they would sound like if there were no teeth. Even the word teeth, relies on the tongue touching the top of the mouth behind the teeth to create the “t” sound. What other words or letters are sounded out by moving the jaws to open or close the teeth, or involve the teeth directly?



Has your child ever experienced a headache from eating something cold? You probably do not want to try and make this sensation happen for obvious reasons. “Cold headaches” occur when something cold comes in contact with the roof of the mouth causing rapid constriction of the blood vessels. Once the pain subsides, it could be an interesting point of discussion.

Your child may also experience tooth pain when consuming something hot or cold. Discuss tooth pain and find images on-line of the nerves in teeth that respond to temperature, damage or decay.

Gums can feel sore when new teeth are coming in. Gums have nerves too! Gums or soft tissue also depend on blood flow to stay healthy. Flossing helps to clean between the teeth and keeps the gums healthy.

Teeth are only one part of the mouth that can be interesting to this age group. Explore the role of saliva, how the tongue can taste a variety of flavors, and where food goes once it is chewed and swallowed.

Learning to brush teeth correctly takes time and practice. For practice, add a toothbrush to water toys that are in the bathtub. Brush other toys clean. Make sure to find nooks and crannies where food/dirt could hide. Which brushing motion works best?

Make a model of teeth using pink construction paper or Play-do for the gums and palate. There are several options for representing teeth in the model, including; mini-marshmallows (although not a great food for healthy teeth), packing peanuts cut in half, or white beans.


Orthodontia, orthodontics


Molars (in the back, 8 total), Incisors (four in front, 2 on top and 2 on the bottom)

Canine (pointy teeth on either side of mouth, 2 on top and 2 on the bottom)

Premolars (next to the canines, 8 total)



Enamel (shiny covering of tooth and the hardest substance in your body)



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