Recess Before Lunch

I never thought of myself as a mom who would lead the charge for big change at our boys’ school, but this was exactly what I found myself doing in 2007. My big, new idea didn’t originate out of research or a glaring problem. It merely was born from the daily struggle when I picked my boys up from school at 3.

I dreaded the ride home as they crashed into their cars seats in a daily, grumpy hypoglycemia. Invariably, the boys would be falling apart emotionally with tears and yelling. What a miserable way to greet each other after being away all day. 

My first question in the car almost always was, “What did you eat in your lunch?!” I knew they went to school with a well-packed lunch, so why were they so hungry?  Why was there so much food left in those lunches?   And I have a steadfast rule –  you have to eat anything left in your lunch before you can progress to any after-school snacks. And, of course, they would argue they couldn’t possibly eat any lunch food now because it “wasn’t cold (or warm) anymore” or it was “too mushy” now. Grrrrr! (But sometimes those lunches were practically inedible by 3…yuck!) Money down the drain and roller coaster kid pick-ups. Something was wrong here and I needed to find out what was going on.  

I started interviewing my kids each day after school after they had finally had a snack and they turned back to their sweet selves. Some of the questions I asked them were: How much time were they getting to eat their lunches? Where did they eat and with whom? Was the class exiting lunch as a whole class or one child at a time?

Image result for kids eating lunch

I discovered that the entire class went to the bathroom and washed their hands before lunch, thank goodness, but this bathroom break ate away time from their lunch and recess period.  I learned that the kids would sit down for lunch, wolf down a couple of hand-held snacks and then run out to recess, leaving staples like soups and sandwiches behind in the disregarded lunch bag. I also learned that the rule of thumb apparently was that as soon as a child determined that they are “done eating”, they could run outside and play. 

Well, no wonder nothing was getting eaten and my boys were coming home starving. When faced with the choice between their sandwich and a game of kickball, recess always wins! On top of all of the afterschool hunger was the food waste. Not to mention the fact that I was also getting pretty regular emails from my oldest’s teacher about afternoon class behavior issues.

Now I felt like I was starting to really understand the dynamics and “choices” of lunchtimes and some problems of the current system became readily apparent.  I started talking to other parents and was not surprised to hear that they were experiencing a lot of the same frustrations. This really got me thinking that there has got to be a better way. 

I started researching school lunch programs and reading about how other schools handled the scheduling around lunch and recess. These are, after all, such a brief and treasured break in the day.  That is when I stumbled across the “Recess Before Lunch” programs, what I will refer to as RBL for the rest of this article. RBL started as a pilot program in 2002 in 4 elementary schools in Montana with the support of one local principal.  The pilot program initially grew out of an observation in schools of high food waste, or “plate waste.”  In fact, kids were only taking 3-5 minutes (!) to eat their lunches in a rush to get outside, throwing most of their lunches in the trash on their way out of the cafeteria.  RBL offers a reordering of the school schedule which seeks to encourage lunch and recess times to work for the kids and not against them. Recess needs to come first.

During a long school day filled with so much academic work and the social pressures of just being a kid, our children need as much support as possible. Recess needed to be offered first as a much-needed release. Lunch then can be a relaxed place of nourishment, an important slowing down. The elementary years encompass almost every stage of development, large growth spurts and the continual challenges of new academic requirements.

As I read about RBL, it occurred to me as a bit of schedule reordering genius. It’s a flipping of the paradigm so kids play first and then eat second.  The benefits could potentially affect their social, academic, physical, and behavioral needs. I reached out to a nutritional therapist friend and mom where our kids attend school and she raved about the program’s potential. Eating at a slower, more relaxed pace would reap profound benefits for their bodies and the way in which they digest the foods we pack in those daily lunches. It wasn’t long before we drew up a written proposal to present the RBL data to the school and its faculty for their consideration. We wanted to pilot this program at our school. 

In addition to the research I had done, I found another program that championed this change called “Peaceful Playgrounds.”  Peaceful Playgrounds was formed in 2004 but started as an idea in 1995 by another principal who wanted to increase the time kids were engaged in physical activity rather than standing in lunch lines in a cafeteria. It strove to change chaotic lunchtimes to cooperative cafeterias when recess came before lunch. Another proponent of Peaceful Playground is to decrease bullying in schools which was almost immediately seen when the chaotic energy changed to calm cooperation. 

After the RBL piloting program was adopted by 35 Montana schools, Peaceful Playgrounds championed the RBL movement by offering free, downloadable resources on how to implement the RBL on their website. Luckily, this is when I stumbled across these websites. The hard work and research had already been done. The free resources we found walked us through the RBL research study and explains all of its benefits. This resource was now available to help implement the RBL program step by step. Also, it helped get a new pilot through all of the hiccups that occur during the start time. Logistic and scheduling issues are addressed as well as establishing administrative policy and leadership. There is even a textbook available. No reinventing the wheel was necessary with this program thanks to the downloadables.

Recess Before Lunch Pillars: So What Is The Magic Really About?

The pillars of the program are to get kids outside first when they need to get the wiggles out and are dying for some fresh air and freedom. That is a no-brainer.  Recess is vital and has a vigorous role in promoting optimal child development and well-being. It is a necessary break from the rigors of the child’s day and combats childhood obesity.

RBL identifies the importance of the body to eat when it is relaxed and not in that fight or flight brain stage where kids are basically stuffing food into their mouths so they can just get outside for recess. This just triggers our body to stay in a fight or flight response as we rush through lunch with barely chewed snack foods as our sole nutrition. The body needs to rest in order to digest. In a hurry, your body simply shuts down digestion. Simple biology. Vital vitamins and minerals may get eaten, but they don’t get absorbed. Herein lies the magic bullet of RBL, the kids get to have a good recess and relax their bodies and minds before sitting down to eat! The kids don’t have any reason to rush through food because recess is over.  Now it’s time to socialize and really enjoy those packed, well thought out lunches we sent them to school with. 

Another RBL pillar is that kids now eat more food. Less plate waste means less food is needlessly thrown away.  Better food choices are made by the children. The pilot program documented an increase in the eating of fruits,  vegetables, and milk consumption. Childrens’ large energy requirements were finally getting met, preparing them in the best way possible for the second half of their day. Another surprising effect happened as well; kids visited the school nurse/office less with fewer complaints of headaches and stomach aches. 

A last pillar of RBL is its effects during that second, important half of the day. After RBL, kids are now fed and refreshed.  The program documents a marked decrease in many of the behavioral problems as kids were no longer hypoglycemic after the “snacks” from lunch wearing off.  Indeed, children’s ability to focus in the afternoon increased. After the RBL program was implemented, students return to their classrooms settled and ready to work. 

Together, we presented all of this information to our school over the course of three different meetings with both faculty and administration. We performed a pilot program in 2 different grades and conducted daily questionnaires with the teachers and parents of these children. The two of us stood in the 3 0’clock pick up lines during the pilot to hand out surveys, field questions and spread the information that we were so excited about. The pilot program went very well and was received enthusiastically.

Today, over 10 schools in our school district have implemented the Recess Before Lunch program. What started out as me trying to understand my consistently cranky kids became a program and endeavor that I am very proud to have taken part in. 

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