From Our Team
Parents, caregivers, and educators inherently seek ways in which we can improve our children’s lives. When it comes to physical activity and nutrition, I am optimistic that we are on the precipice of a period in which new approaches to eating well and being active are discovered that can profoundly improve our children’s quality of life.
For example, emerging research suggests that children eat better at school if they have recess before lunch. My elementary lunchtime memories include visions of a cavernous lunchroom and lime green cafeteria trays. Throughout my elementary years, my major lunchtime goal was to eat quickly in order to maximize my available time to enjoy recess. Apparently, I was not alone. Dr. Leah Whigham, Executive Director of the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living, explains, “When lunch is scheduled before recess, students are incentivized to eat quickly to get more time to play.”
A recess before lunch (RBL) movement has emerged over the last decade. Montana’s Office of Public Instruction was an early adopter. This state-level department conducted a year-long pilot study of plate waste in four schools. The results found that kids were eating more and drinking more milk, when recess was scheduled before lunch. Teachers also reported perceptions of improved behavior in the classroom after lunch. After these findings, the Office of Public Instruction published a guide for school leadership to transition their schedules and schools across the state embraced the new format.
Montana’s experience is supported by research conducted across the U.S. Multiple studies have found that, when recess is scheduled before lunch, students consume more food, consume more milk, receive more of necessary nutrients, and waste less food at lunchtime. Studies also report that the scheduling shift can result in better student behavior on the playground, in the lunchroom, and the classroom.
While I have not surveyed all of the districts, I am aware that El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) and Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS) embrace recess before lunch scheduling. In both districts, RBL is a recommendation for the districts’ elementary schools, but is not mandatory. About half of EPISD and more than half of LCPS elementary schools comply with the recommendation. John Adams, EPISD’s Director of Health, Wellness, and Physical Education explains: “We recommend this schedule based on research. Kids come back from recess hungrier; they eat more, and tend to go back to class ready to learn, since they unwind while eating lunch.”
While recess before lunch sounds simple in theory, it’s important to note that this policy change requires careful planning and strong communication. Among other challenges, school cafeterias need to be prepared for dirtier little hands when students arrive at the lunchroom after recess. It’s also recommended that schools increase the presence of school staff or parent volunteers in the lunchroom when RBL is initially implemented. Extra supervision is helpful while students learn the new routine. These concerns merit attention, but they can be overcome.
If you are interested in having recess before lunch at your child’s school, contact the school principal or office staff. Each district in El Paso County also has a School Health Advisory Council. These councils, required in Texas, are an appropriate venue for parents and other stakeholders to ensure the connection between health and learning in schools.
RBL is an important twist to the school day. Its strength is that it facilitates better nutrition, without requiring any parental or teacher nagging. RBL itself has the potential to improve the daily nutritional intake of thousands of the region’s youth. We continue to learn more and more about the benefits of quality nutrition and physical activity. With creative implementation, like recess before lunch, the health outcomes of the next generation can be better than our own.
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