Toothbrushing project brings bright smiles to Muriwhenua tamariki

Wednesday 9 March 2022

Oranga Niho visit to Nau Mai Mokopuna.jpg

An innovative locally-created toothbrushing project is brightening the smiles of preschool-aged tamariki in Muriwhenua.

Oranga Niho is a collaborative project initiated by Hauora Muriwhenua, a collective of Muriwhenua leaders, and supported by Mahitahi Hauora Primary Health Entity. The project is delivered by the ANT (Aupouri, Ngāti Kahu and Te Rarawa) Trust, and aims to eliminate or reduce inequities and barriers to access to dental health for Muriwhenua tamariki under five years of age.

Covering 46 kohanga, early childhood education centres and home-based preschool facilities, the project is set to reach over 1,100 tamariki. Visits kicked off on 23 February, with children at Kaitaia kohanga Nau Mai Mokopuna getting a special visit from the Oranga Niho ‘tooth fairies’.

The tooth fairies, who wear piupiu, antennae and butterfly wings, are the project’s two kaiawhina, Hayley Tapatahi and Lyla-Blue Paparoa. They visit kohanga with a unique suite of resources designed to teach children how to take care of their teeth in a fun and engaging way.

Oranga Niho Project Manager Ariana Smith said the team created the resources they use from scratch to appeal to Muriwhenua tamariki.

“We’ve gone with a Māori approach to encourage our tamariki, because our Māori kids have the worst stats. We’ve created a mascot called Toa Niho – he’s a tooth, and he wears a maro and has a ta moko, and he holds his toothbrush like a taiaha.

“We also created our own books, activities, songs and costumes. When we visit a kohanga, our kaiawhina go dressed up as tooth fairies with a Māori twist to their costumes. They start by reading the kids a story about how Toa Niho learned to take care of his teeth, then we play games where the kids have fun while learning how important it is to eat healthy foods and drink water instead of fizzy drinks. After that the kids do a session of learning how to brush their teeth. We use a special te reo Māori two-minute song, because that’s how long kids need to brush their teeth for.”

Full and ongoing support for kohanga is a key part of the programme, with the team supplying toothbrushes, toothpaste, toothbrush caps and holders, and toothbrushing charts with stickers. They keep in touch with kohanga regularly, and return every three months to top up resources.  

The team monitor progress by carrying out six-monthly ‘Lift the Lip’ assessments. This involves taking photos of the children’s teeth on their first visit to a kohanga and after six months.

They also sign up children with Northland DHB’s Oral Health Service if they are not already registered.

Smith says the need for the project was clear, with Northland children having “the worst stats in New Zealand” for oral health of children under five.

Research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2019 found that over 40% of five-year-olds in Northland and Auckland who received school entry dental examinations in 2014-15 had tooth decay, missing teeth or fillings. Northland children were the worst affected, especially those living in deprived areas or in communities without water fluoridation, and Māori and Pacific children.

Data from the Ministry of Health also shows dental issues are the leading cause of avoidable hospitalisations in children under five in Tai Tokerau.

Smith says memories of the well-known Life Education Trust character Harold the Giraffe from her school days inspired the approach to Oranga Niho.

“It’s important that we deliver something the children are going to understand and that’s going to be fun for them. I remember Harold the Giraffe coming to school and I loved the story behind him. We were learning stuff, but it was really fun,” she says.

The feedback from the team’s first visit to Nau Mai Mokopuna shows they’ve created a winning formula.

“They absolutely loved it. They were surprised and amazed by how well our kaiawhina delivered the programme and by all the resources. They told us they’ve had people visit to show the kids how to brush their teeth before, but they’ve never seen anything like this!”