NEW ORLEANS — Elementary school students who had their teeth cleaned Friday received an award much better than a bouncy ball and a new toothbrush — the chance to practice football drills with two New Orleans Saints players.

The NFL teamed up with the Louisiana State Health Sciences Center School of Dentistry and the New Orleans Dental Association for the annual “Give Kids a Smile” event, providing 101 kids with a day of fun mixed with an important message: Stay active and take care of your teeth.

The program is part of a nationwide volunteer-powered effort started by the American Dental Association in 2003 that reaches 450,000 children at more than 1,500 events.

Divided into groups, the second- through fifth-graders spent the morning rotating between teeth screenings and cleanings, playing football with Saints Cameron Jordan and Akeim Hicks, and interactively learning about ways to prevent cavities.

At one educational booth, a puppet demonstrated the correct way to floss and showed the spots most easily missed.

At another, kids learned about the effects of sugary and acidic drinks on their teeth.

Kellie Axelrad, a pediatric dentist and co-chair of Give Kids a Smile, said beverages are a big contributor to cavities in children, especially when consumed multiple times a day. Even sugar-free drinks like diet soda and powdered drink mixes can increase the risk of cavities because of their acidity, she said.

The students participating at the event at the School of Dentistry in Gentilly were from Phoenix School in Plaquemines Parish and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in St. John the Baptist Parish.

Axelrad said that this year they decided to invite children from communities affected by Hurricane Isaac.

Of the students screened Friday, 11 had urgent dental needs, 41 had cavities, and 38 would benefit from sealants and/or further professional evaluation, according to Janice Townsend, head of pediatric dentistry at the LSUHSC School of Dentistry. Every child goes home with a sheet detailing their needs for their parents, which also includes a list of dentists in their Medicaid region.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease. Axelrad’s biggest message to the kids Friday was that it’s a preventable disease, and that by keeping teeth clean and watching what goes in your mouth, cavities can be avoided.

In addition, studies have shown that obesity and dental cavities share contributing factors, which often are related to environmental factors, such as lack of access to healthy foods and high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. One study found that children with dental decay were more likely to consume too many calories.

The activities and dentistry were followed by a healthy lunch of sandwiches and fruit, before the children loaded the buses and headed back to school.

Axelrad said the day was a success with the sun shining, “top-notch” participation from the Saints players, and, as was the goal, plenty of (freshly polished) smiles.