By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Addison Knoll may have discovered a new talent Tuesday morning.
For 30 minutes, the University of Nebraska at Kearney freshman played the part of “Sparkles the Monkey,” a plush puppet whose picky eating habits showed local preschoolers how to take care of their teeth.
If they fed him a picture of something healthy, Sparkles gobbled it right up.
“Mmm, Sparkles likes milk,” Knoll said in her best cartoon voice as the young children giggled.
But give him something sugary like candy or soda and Sparkles responded with an emphatic, “Blaah!”
“I definitely would have never thought I’d be a monkey for a day,” Knoll said with a smile. “But it was fun to teach them, keep them engaged and make them laugh.”
The McCook native was one of eight UNK pre-dental hygiene and pre-dentistry students who visited First Lutheran Preschool in Kearney to teach 3- and 4-year-olds about oral health care during an educational event organized by the Health Science Club’s Dental Committee.
“Parents and kids need to know that dental health isn’t something you can ignore,” Knoll said. “Preventative care is extremely important and you need to start at a young age by showing kids how to properly brush their teeth and making sure they’re not scared to go to the dentist.”
While one group of UNK students focused on healthy food and drink choices, others used oversized rubber mouths to demonstrate proper brushing techniques. The preschoolers also got to meet Brooke Anderson, a dental hygienist from Prairie Meadows Dental in Kearney.
Across the room, UNK sophomore Brooke Glaser of Kearney read “Why Do I Need to Brush My Teeth?” a children’s book that inspires young learners to practice healthy oral care habits.
“It’s really important for little kids to understand why they need to brush their teeth,” Glaser said. “We also want them to recognize that the dentist isn’t scary so they’re comfortable going to the dentist and they understand this person is there to help.”
Lora Messbarger, a lead teacher at First Lutheran Preschool, called oral hygiene a very important topic. But, she added, it can be difficult to teach to 3- and 4-year-olds in a way that’s fun and engaging.
“I think this is a wonderful way for them to learn,” she said of the UNK event. “They have so many great props and hands-on activities, and that’s the best way to teach preschoolers.
“These students have a lot of enthusiasm, and the kids thrive on that. You can see it in the room. It’s hard to keep everyone’s attention sometimes, and they are all focusing on what these girls are teaching them.”
At the end of the event, each preschooler received a take-home bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, stickers, coloring book provided by Two Rivers Public Health Department and a letter in both English and Spanish explaining to parents the importance of proper oral health.
The UNK Health Science Club launched its oral hygiene event last year – the brainchild of Dental Committee Chair Maritza Calmo Martin of Lexington – and expanded it this year to reach even more children. They’ll interact with nearly 40 students at First Lutheran Preschool, along with kindergartners at Glenwood and Bryant elementary schools.
About 15 UNK students are participating, most in the pre-dental hygiene and pre-dentistry programs.
“If you’re going into dentistry or dental hygiene, it’s important to get experience like this because you’re going to work with kids and you have to kind of teach them the basics,” Glaser said.
Plus, she added, “It’s fun to see the kids smile.”