For some local schools, moving recess before lunch boosts kids' appetite, performance, behavior

Norwood, Indian Hill, Madeira try out shift
Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-18 07:00:50-04

CINCINNATI -- Some local schools have flipped the traditional schedule of lunch followed by recess so that students can get their energy out on the playground before sitting down to eat.

When students play at recess before they eat lunch, school administrators notice better behavior, less food waste and fewer complaints of afternoon stomachaches, headaches and fatigue.

A few years ago, staff at Norwood’s Williams Avenue Elementary School started noticing a pattern in their discipline referral tracking -- students were acting out mostly during lunch and recess.

“I had read a few articles about how activity and movement can curtail some of that negative behavior, so we flip-flopped and went to recess first,” said Mark Gabbard, Williams’ principal. “They burn off some energy, run around, then come into the cafeteria. They eat, they are quieter, there are less issues.”

Since implementing the schedule shift in 2014, the Norwood school has seen a 50 percent drop in discipline referrals throughout the day, Gabbard said.

When playtime comes first, kids are eating more of their lunch because they aren’t excitedly rushing through their meal to get out to the playground. By eating more of their lunch, they can better focus on afternoon schoolwork, he said, and behavior improves.

When Madeira Elementary School first made the switch three years ago, parents began reporting that they no longer pulled half-eaten lunches from their children’s backpacks at the end of the day.

Playing before eating may even help students to eat more of the healthier foods on their plate. A 2015 study from researchers at Cornell University and Brigham Young University showed that, in schools that switched to recess before lunch, students ate 54 percent more fruits and vegetables, which they are now required by federal guidelines to put on their plate in the school lunch lines.

READ MORE: How do you convince kids to eat more veggies?

The change also has encouraged children to eat more of their food at Indian Hill Primary School and Indian Hill Elementary, which made the schedule switch nine years ago.

“I used to get requests from parents frequently, and they would ask me to monitor their children’s lunch and to help them make the choice to eat. I very rarely get that request these days,” said Melissa Stewart, Indian Hill Elementary principal.

When the schools had lunch before recess, Stewart said many students wouldn’t eat much lunch because of their excitement to go play outside. That lack of food led to complaints of stomachaches, headaches and fatigue later in the day -- which made it hard for the kids to focus in class.

School staff are finding that it's easier for students to go from the lunchroom to the classroom and be ready to learn, instead of going from the excitement of the playground directly into learning mode.

“It’s easier to go from the playground -- where we want kids to be active and exercising and getting that blood flowing – to then come in and have a good lunch, eat everything and socialize with their friends. Then it makes for an easier transition back into the classroom,” said Chris Flanagan, Madeira Elementary principal.

Some challenges in making the schedule change came up when Indian Hill schools implemented recess before lunch. When students come in from recess to eat, their hands are dirty. The school has solved that problem by providing hand sanitizer, as well as sinks in the lunchroom area, said Jim Nichols, principal of Indian Hill Primary School.

There are also some students who are so energized after recess that they have trouble settling down enough to eat their lunch. To solve that problem, those students are allowed to stay in the lunchroom for a few extra minutes to finish eating, Stewart said.