Recess Before Lunch

by Roxann Kriete on
boy swinging on monkey bars

It's always affirming when studies corroborate behaviors that we already practice, or at least espouse.

For example, on the personal front, I've been thrilled to see nutrition articles lately citing evidence that kale and sweet potatoes are good for me, since they are two of my favorite foods. (And let's not forget those airtight findings on the health benefits of dark chocolate and red wine, a couple of other personal favorites.)

And on the professional front, I was pleased to see a New York Times article last week citing evidence about the positive changes that accrue from scheduling recess before lunch in elementary schools, since that is a practice that we've advocated for over twenty-five years now.

The schools profiled in the article report fewer behavior problems, not only at lunch, but throughout the afternoon. As one principal reports, "the wiggles are out." They have documented less food waste and fewer nurse visits. And, interestingly, one Arizona school reported a gain of 15 minutes per day in instructional time, since the "cool-down" period after recess occurred during lunch, rather than during classroom time. Compare those comments with elementary principal Gail Healy's description of her community’s experience with switching recess and lunch in the Winter 2001 issue of the Responsive Classroom Newsletter. You'll notice the alignment.

Although a 2006 study cited in the article states that only 5% of elementary schools currently follow the play-then-eat formula, this may be a common-sense idea whose time has come, given the current attention on children's nutrition and health in school. After all, as adults, how many of us down a meal and then immediately head out for a run or to the gym?

It's true that reordering the midday schedule often requires rethinking some management routines, such as hand-washing and getting outerwear on and off. Surely that's an investment that will repay itself many times over if it results in healthier children who return from their midday time settled and ready for an afternoon of learning.

My first graders recently voted to change their recess time. It originally was 20 minutes before lunch. They asked if they could have recess two times--10 minutes before lunch, 10 minutes after lunch. The vote was unanimous. After two days, they asked to have a revote. It was unanimous again for one long recess before lunch only. What interested me most was their reasoning for why a long recess before lunch is best. It meant they could complete activities and not feel so fragmented!
Hi Angela- Yes, your first graders' reasoning is interesting indeed; the issue of increasing fragmentation of our time is one that many of us struggle with. I love the way that you include your students in decisions about their school lives.
Do you have any ideas for an elementary school that has to have 2 lunches because of fire codes? It means that currently, we have 1/2 of the school at recess while 1/2 is at lunch. Then the students switch. At the half year mark, the Principal also switched schedules, so the children who were play then eat now become eat then play and vice-versa. But in order to apply it to the whole school...we are really in a bind... Fortunately for me, I asked my Principal if I could be assigned to the play then eat schedule for the entire year. He said sure! ;)
My schedule doesn't permit me to have recess before lunch so I've found quiet time all that more critical. My first graders need the time to be quiet and refocus. I've skipped it a few times (because I felt we had too much curriculum to do) and boy, did I pay for it! I spent the whole afternoon redirecting!
Our school was recently featured in the New York Times article. The article was excellent but it did fail to mention that we are a Responsive School!
Nice to hear from you, David. Thanks for pointing this out!