Starving for Recess: Elementary Schools That Buck Tradition and Place Recess before Lunch Consistently Report Improvements in Student Nutrition and Behavior

By Patt, Mary Johnson | District Administration, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Starving for Recess: Elementary Schools That Buck Tradition and Place Recess before Lunch Consistently Report Improvements in Student Nutrition and Behavior


Patt, Mary Johnson, District Administration


EVERY WEEKDAY, MILLIONS OF AMERICAN SCHOOLCHILDREN throw away their half-eaten cafeteria lunches so that they can run outside to play.

"We tell kids not to eat and swim right away. And yet here we are, telling them that the quicker they eat, the quicker they get to recess," says Greg Welk, director of clinical research at Iowa State University's Nutrition and Wellness Research Center.

According to Welk and a growing chorus of educators, poor eating habits, stomachaches and post-recess behavioral problems may be ascribed at least in part--to a scheduling issue. The traditional placement of lunch before recess, coupled with the recent decline in overall recess time to meet academic time constraints, forces children to choose between two essential needs: food and exercise.

"A lot of schools have cut recess with the mistaken notion that it will improve their academic performance," Welk says. "They are going in the wrong direction. Kids learn better when they have opportunities to move throughout the day. And placing recess before lunch improves the quality of their eating. When they are hungrier, they eat better; then they are better ready to focus in the classroom."

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The Recess Before Lunch (RBL) movement has been growing slowly since 2002, when a health team organized in Montana's Office of Public Instruction started a year-long pilot study of plate waste in four schools willing to make the lunch/recess switch. The initial results of the Montana study were exactly as Peter Welk describes, according to Christine Emerson, director of the state's school nutrition program: "The kids were eating more, drinking all of their milk. And the schools were finding other benefits, like improved behavior in the classroom," Emerson says. "The teachers didn't need a calm-down period. The kids were well fed, and felt better in the afternoon because they ate."

Montana OPI's school nutrition team soon began spreading word of their findings via presentations to school administrators statewide. By 2003, they had published "Recess Before Lunch: A Guide for Success." This free, comprehensive toolkit for implementing RBL is still available online and has been adapted by interested schools, health organizations and government agencies across the country in recent years. While it would be difficult to secure an exact count of American schools currently offering RBL, fewer than 5 percent were doing so as recently as 2006, according to a study reported in The Journal of Childhood Nutrition & Management.

"About 40 percent of Montana's elementary schools are now implementing recess before lunch," says State Superintendent Denise Juneau, whose advocacy for improving child nutrition extends to support for farm-to-school programs, school gardens and food security reform.

"We're a huge state, but still very rural," Juneau explains. "The recess-before-lunch innovation was born on the ground. Local schools saw something successful, picked it up, and ran with it. Principals in districts who are doing it offer suggestions to others considering the switch--tips such as how you need to involve staff, students and parents in planning efforts, and to start with a trial period or pilot program and then make adjustments as necessary."

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Thinking Outside the Sandbox

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's 2010 report, "The State of Play," the vast majority of nearly 2,000 elementary principals polled nationwide by Gallup showed an overwhelming appreciation of the physical, emotional and academic benefits associated with recess. The same principals, however, reported that most behavior-management challenges occur outside of the classroom, during recess or lunch.

The report recommended that schools improve supervision at recess time to diffuse potential problems. In these tough economic times, when many districts are struggling simply to maintain staffs at current levels, the thought of finding money to pay for additional supervisory personnel can be daunting. …

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