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Recess Before Lunch

Some schools say changing the traditional lunchtime schedule can decrease food waste and improve student behavior.

By Lance Fuller

For generations of students, recess has always followed lunch.

But around the country, a small but growing number of schools are questioning this long-standing tradition, noticing that scarfing down that PB&J before racing outside to play kickball can have negative effects on a student's behavior and health.

Proponents argue that eating first and then exercising can result in numerous nurse visits for headaches and stomachaches. Students excited about the opportunity to play outside rush through or entirely skip their lunch, leaving them hungry later in the day and creating more cafeteria waste.

Enter “Recess Before Lunch,” also known as “Play Before Eat,” a practice that aims to improve students’ health and behavior by, as its name implies, having children play first and eat lunch afterward. A 2006 study reported that about 4.6 percent of U.S. elementary schools schedule recess before lunch.

What are the benefits?

Schools that schedule recess before lunch report that students eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more milk, waste less food, and are better behaved on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the classroom, according to an article in the Journal of Child Nutrition and Management. Some schools also note a decrease in visits to the school nurse and more instruction time as benefits of the schedule switch.

“Kids are calmer after they’ve had recess first,” Janet Sinkewicz, principal of Sharon Elementary School in Robbinsville, New Jersey, told The New York Times recently. “They feel like they have more time to eat and they don’t have to rush.”

What are the drawbacks?

Changing the recess and lunch schedule, however, raises some practical concerns. For example, critics question when, in the rush from playground to cafeteria, students can wash their hands, as well as what to do with coats, gloves, and galoshes after playing.

Delaying lunch also puts additional strain on students from low-income families who often do not eat breakfast.

Schools address these problems in various ways. Sharon Elementary in New Jersey, for example, allows students more time to return coats to their lockers with less clothing ending up in the lost and found, Sinkewicz told the Times.

And hand sanitizers can help with the hand-washing problem, although many adopters of recess before lunch recommend building in hand-washing time before students enter the cafeteria.

To help hungry students, Montana schools offering recess before lunch program suggest offering a mid-morning snack along with promoting the school’s breakfast program.

How do I get started?

First, research successful recess before lunch programs. Some of the best information available online can be found at Peaceful Playgrounds, which also includes a link to a guide created by the Montana Team Nutrition Network called Recess before Lunch: A Guide to Success.

Second, consider potential barriers to changing the schedule. According to Melinda Bossenmeyer, a veteran educator, former school principal, and president of Peaceful Playgrounds, the greatest resistance normally encountered comes from parents, though school staff also have scheduling concerns, usually around testing and food service demands, that need to be addressed. Schools need to seek educator and parent input and do their part to inform the school community about the benefits of the program.

Third, create a plan with input from school staff. “Meet with all involved including: playground supervisors, lunch monitors, food service workers, custodians, teachers, and discuss the effects of the new change. Be flexible and realize that the initial schedule may need revision,” advised the Peaceful Playgrounds site.

Finally, remember that any new program will take time to implement successfully.

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