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Recess Before Lunch Can Mean
Happier, Healthier Kids


Recess follows lunch almost as predictably as four follows three, because it always has been that way. Principals who have put recess first, though, have noticed children eat more and behave better after lunch. Included: Ideas for making the change to recess before lunch.

The Montana Team Nutrition Program developed guidelines for schools interested in switching lunch and recess. Click here to read Recess Before Lunch Policy: Kids Play and then Eat! [pdf format]

For centuries, recess has followed lunch with the consistency and predictability of one season following another. Lunch-recess is part of the natural order of the education universe, with recess secure in its place.

More administrators, though, are starting to challenge that static schedule. Some principals who moved recess before lunch discovered that not only do students eat more and waste less food, but behavior improved and teachers gained instructional time.

"We've been doing it for three years, and it has made all the difference in the world, especially in the afternoon classes," said Kim Anderson, principal of Central School, a grade 5 to 8 school in Whitefish, Montana. "They used to come in [from recess] hot, sweaty, and fired up. It would take teachers five or six minutes to get them back to a teachable mode. We've reclaimed five to ten minutes of instruction time every day."


Two elementary schools that switched recess and lunch also reported healthier, happier students. Post-recess ailments were among the reasons North Ranch Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona, changed its schedule. "We got the idea [of recess before lunch] from the school nurse who had been to a conference," said principal Dr. Sarah Hartley. "It gets very hot here, and the kids were eating and then playing in the heat. The nurse was reporting a lot of headaches and stomachaches after lunch."

Four years after North Ranch began serving lunch after recess, the change seems to agree with everyone.

"The teachers love it," Hartley told Education World. "They don't feel like they have to cool down the children after lunch. In the past it could take 15 minutes to settle the kids down after recess. So we found a lot of academic time. We also saw a drop in the number of referrals to the nurse, and the cafeteria reported more kids eating and less food being thrown away."

North Ranch was the first elementary school in its district to make the change; now 16 out of 31 elementary schools have switched.

Forest Glen International Elementary School, a K-5 school in Indianapolis, Indiana, moved lunch after recess to encourage children to eat more and eat more leisurely, said principal Gina Borgioli-Yoder. The school piloted the change last year with kindergarteners and first graders.

"Little kids tend to nibble and dump," Borgioli-Yoder told Education World. "When they play first, they tend to eat more. They play and get their energy out and then settle down. The kids really like it."


Entrenched as it is in the school culture, the lunch-recess sequence never made much sense from a health standpoint. Few adults eat a meal and then immediately exercise, because they know what could happen.

The lure of going out to play also causes some students to rush through or skip their lunches, which can lead to stomachaches or restless, hungry children later in the day.

Katie Bark, a dietician who is a member of the Montana Team Nutrition Program, said her group has been researching the affects of holding recess before lunch for several years. The project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; one of the directives from the USDA is for schools to develop a healthy nutritional environment.

The team developed some guidelines for schools interested in changing their schedules, called Recess Before Lunch Policy: Kids Play and then Eat!

"We devised a pilot project and worked in four different elementary schools in the spring of 2002-2003," Bark told Education World. Baseline studies showed that when recess was held before lunch, plate waste -- the amount of discarded food -- went way down and milk consumption went way up.

The team also noted that when students come in from the playground, the noise level in the cafeteria is high. Then they settle down. "And if they had a dispute on the playground, they tend to forget about it when they get to class."

Still, changing a tradition as deeply rooted as lunch-recess can take time. "This was a huge change for these schools to do," Bark said. "We're trying to learn from these schools. Then we want to develop a guide for success."


One of the schools in the Montana study, Central Middle School, experienced dramatic shifts in student behavior after changing its schedule. Moving lunch after recess was part of an effort to create a more healthful environment in the school. Snack and soda machines were eliminated, lunch menus changed, and microwaves and hot water dispensers installed to give students more options for lunch.

The changes began after Anderson noticed how much food was being discarded daily. "Many students were spending less than five minutes eating lunch because they wanted to go out. At best they were gobbling -- but they were not eating nearly what they brought," he told Education World. "They were going to their afternoon classes not properly fueled.

"Many just were eating chips, a candy bar, and a soda before going out, and the sugar and fat would hit their systems about 90 minutes after lunch."

When students had the chance to eat more slowly and more thoughtfully, they brought more food and ate more, and disciplinary actions decreased by 60 percent over a three-year period. "Students are less restless, more attentive, and we have fewer outbursts in the afternoon," Anderson said. Over that same three-year period, the school also reduced the amount of plate waste by 50 percent.

Other benefits included:

  • Lunchroom discipline problems dropped from 183 per year, prior to the lunch program changes, to only 36 in the first eight months of the 2002-03 school year.
  • After-lunch referrals to the principal's office (for classroom and other behavior problems) also decreased. They went from 96 referrals (in 2001-02) to just 22 referrals in the first eight months of the 2002-03 school year.
  • Teachers reported increased attentiveness in their classes after lunch; they gained about 10 minutes of instructional time per class.


The primary adjustment needed if lunch and recess are switched is building in time for students to wash their hands before eating. But the principals with whom Education World spoke said that hand-washing fit smoothly into the schedule.

At Central and North Ranch, dispensers with hand sanitizing liquid were installed, so students can clean their hands as they enter the cafeteria. "We've also noticed a decrease in the number of colds," since installing the hand sanitizers, according to Anderson. Often a company will donate the dispensers, he added. The proceeds from a vending machine that dispenses healthy snacks pays for the sanitizing liquid at Central.


NOTE: Some U.S. schools and districts have banned the use of alcohol-based sanitizers because of the risk of alcohol poisoning in children. In addition, there is research indicating that washing your hands with soap and water is more effective than using hand sanitizers, and in some cases, hand sanitizers may increase the amount of bacteria on the hands, rather than reducing it.

Forest Glen Elementary added five minutes to each lunch session so students could use the restrooms and wash their hands before lunch.

"You do have to think about hand-washing if you are going to switch," Borgioli-Yoder said. "You have to build in hand-washing time, and stress that it is important."

Another issue North Ranch staff members had to resolve was how to get homemade lunches to the cafeteria when students went directly outside, since they did not want lunches broiling in the Arizona heat while children played. Each class now has a bucket in which all the lunches are placed every morning. The bucket goes out in the hall, and a custodian transports all the buckets to the cafeteria and leaves each bucket by a table.

Students debit cards used for buying lunch also are left on a table, so pupils can collect them as they come in from recess.


Even with evidence of the benefits of scheduling recess first, most schools still follow the traditional schedule. Those who have done it are eager to convince others.

"We recommend it to lots of people," Anderson said.

"We answer lots of e-mails about it," Dr. Hartley added, saying that her school has numerous visitors every year who observe the school's schedule. But like all long-time traditions, changing this one will take time.

"It's just like we still have a school calendar based on an agrarian society -- it just always has been done this way," said Dr. Hartley. "Change is different; it created a lot of curiosity. We had to adjust several ways of thinking."


See Education World's School Issues Glossary for other articles about recess.