PAXTON — To help kids learn about the importance of good oral health and how to fight tooth decay, costumed characters Tooth Wizard and PlaqueMan put on a performance last Tuesday in front of students in kindergarten through second grade at Clara Peterson Elementary School in Paxton as part of the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation’s Land of Smiles program.

"Land of Smiles helps children learn about the importance of taking care of their teeth in a fun way," said Lora Vitek, director of philanthropy and community relations for Delta Dental of Illinois. "By teaching students why brushing, flossing and using mouthwash with fluoride should be parts of their daily routine, we hope to reduce the number of young children with cavities and poor oral health."

The Land of Smiles program runs from Feb. 7 through April 26 and is expected to reach nearly 43,000 pre-kindergarten through third-grade students in 183 Illinois elementary schools. In the past 12 years, the program has reached nearly 400,000 students at almost 850 Illinois schools.

According to a 2018 Delta Dental survey, Illinois parents struggle to get their kids to brush their teeth and floss regularly, as 43 percent of them admit that their children ages 12 and under only brush once a day at best.

Nearly two in five Illinois children had at least one cavity in the past year. Oral health issues, like tooth decay, can cause children to miss school and negatively impact school performance. Thirty-eight percent of Illinois parents say their 6- to 12-year-old children had to miss school because of an oral health problem last year.

The Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation believes prevention is key to reducing and eliminating tooth decay. Children who participate in Land of Smiles receive a kit with a free toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and a booklet packed with oral health tips.

Paxton students began their oral-health journey by helping the heroic Tooth Wizard defeat his arch nemesis, PlaqueMan, and learning the habits needed to have healthy smiles. Children got involved in the interactive performance, helping demonstrate how to correctly brush, floss and use fluoride rinse, causing PlaqueMan to scurry off the stage in defeat. The free Land of Smiles program also teaches children the importance of choosing healthy food and drinks, visiting the dentist regularly and having sealants applied.

"It’s very rewarding to see how excited students get about this program," Vitek said. "Our pre- and post-show surveys indicate that children remember the oral health lessons we cover. In fact, only 14 percent of pre-kindergarten through first-grade students knew how often to brush their teeth before the show, compared with 88 percent after the show."

The Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation was formed in March 2008 by Delta Dental of Illinois, a nonprofit dental service corporation with a mission to improve the oral health of the communities it serves. In the past decade, combined efforts of Delta Dental of Illinois and the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation have provided more than $5 million to programs and organizations in Illinois that improve the oral health of the residents of Illinois.