Take a Bite Out of Dental Decay and Step Inside the Grin

Photography by Wes Battoclette

Visiting the dentist elicits anxiety in many people, especially young children who have never been exposed to the sights and sounds they encounter at a checkup. A new exhibit at the Duke Energy Children’s Museum at Cincinnati Museum Center will turn it into a positive, whimsical experience for children – and their parents – by inviting guests to take a stroll into the human mouth. 

“Inside the Grin” is a gigantic anatomically accurate model of every tooth in the mouth. Upon its unveiling on April 30, children and adults can walk inside the model and explore a dentist’s office in a fun, non-threatening way. 

The exhibit is a partnership between the Junior League of Cincinnati (JLC) and Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC). JLC has created more than 120 projects during their 96 years as an organization. Their GrinUp! Pediatric Oral Health program was the launching pad for “Inside the Grin.” GrinUp! is committed to ensuring kids of all ages can have fun learning how to care for their teeth through proper oral hygiene and nutrition. 

“Pediatric oral health is one of the top causes for children missing school, not just in Cincinnati, but in the entire country,” says Michelle Vaeth, president of JLC. “The statistics in Cincinnati were just as alarming as the national trends, so we felt this exhibit was a specific way we could galvanize support around a project.” 

Early childhood cavities are the number one chronic disease affecting young children, according to American Academy of Pediatrics. Dental care is the single-most-common healthcare need that is not being met among children in Ohio. Cincinnati Public Schools estimates one in 10 students have visible tooth decay. 

Laura Goodell, DMD, is a pediatric dentist and a chair of the JLC who is leading the GrinUp! project. Dr. Goodell is passionate about pediatric oral health, as it’s a challenge she faces every day, continuously striving to advocate for change. 

Working with the Children’s Oral Health Network, the JLC is helping to knock down barriers to children receiving necessary dental care. 

“We have a group of sponsors, providers and donors working to support us through school-based health clinics,” says Dr. Goodell. Oyler Community Learning Center, Dater High School and Withrow University High School each has a dental center where students receive access to care no matter their socioeconomic status. 

“ ‘Inside the Grin’ is the cornerstone of our GrinUp! education campaign,” says Dr. Goodell. “There are a lot of negative connotations around visiting the dentist, so we’re inviting the community to poke around and explore the exhibit at their own pace in a positive environment.” 

All exhibits need to meet a certain set of CMC standards. Tony Lawson is the director of Duke Energy Children’s Museum and has led the “Inside the Grin” project since its inception in 2013. For Lawson, two aspects must be present in any children’s exhibit: a sense of whimsy and at the same time, a healthy dose of realism. 

“We have the whimsy of a very large mouth, and the clinical accuracy of the real dental chair and instruments,” says Lawson. Children can climb into the dental chair, recline it, turn the light on and off and inspect real dental instruments.

“Learning through play is essentially the pedagogy of the children’s museum world. It’s scientifically proven that both children and adults learn best when actively creating.” 

Sarah Lima, director of exhibits business development, and Fern Nafziger, exhibits designer, brought JLC’s vision to reality. “We went big and created a teachable model to give visitors a clear view of what’s going on in that tiny space,” says Lima. “We want to put the kids in control of their dental experience, so when they visit the dentist office they’ll feel familiarity and empowered.” 

Nafziger brought fun, interactive components into the space, including the “tooth sleuth,” where certain points in the teeth will represent cavities or plaque, and children go on a dental scavenger hunt to find all those points. 

Another activity is called “brush it clean,” which is a projection of germs onto a giant tooth. “A countdown of two minutes reinforces the recommended duration for adequate brushing time, and kids have to get rid of the gunk by brushing the tooth,” says Nafziger. 

A tug-of-war flossing game between teeth is another example of how “Inside the Grin” mixes essential education with an irresistibly fun atmosphere. 

“This is something that hasn’t been done before. Most dental exhibits in other children’s museums have a dental chair and maybe a model of the mouth, but this goes above and beyond anything else out there,” says Dr. Goodell. “ ‘Inside the Grin’ is going to get a lot of attention from the dental community because it’s an excellent teaching tool.” 

Around 400,000 visitors cycle through the Duke Energy Children’s Museum each year, making “Inside the Grin” an ideal platform for community education. The exhibit is meant to have an impact not only on children, but also their parents. Messaging throughout the exhibit gives small, easily digestible nuggets of information for parents to absorb and implement into their children’s oral healthcare routine. 

“We want to make kids and their parents more aware and comfortable about their oral health,” says Cody Hefner, manager of media relations at CMC. “The misconceptions that start with the parents eventually are passed down to their children, so I hope this exhibit addresses and puts an end to those misconceptions.” 

JLC is committed to seeing their projects succeed and will ensure this exhibit remains ideal for the community.     

“We hope ‘Inside the Grin’ lasts for generations. We will keep the exhibit relevant as dental technology evolves, but right now it’s cutting edge,” says Vaeth. 

Inside the Grin opens April 30 at the Duke EnergyChildren’s Museum, consistently ranked as one of the top 10 children’s museums in the U.S. 

Cincinnati Museum Center is located at 1301 Western Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45203. You can reach them at 513.287.7000, by email at information@cincymuseum.org or visit their website at www.cincymuseum.org.