When a delegation from Rock Bridge Elementary School went to Coffeyville, Kan., in the spring of 2005 to observe the town’s school literacy program, the group came back with an unrelated idea — change the mid-day lunch and recess schedule.
Since May 15, Rock Bridge Elementary has experimented with changing a long-standing routine and has held recess before lunch in an effort to improve the lunchroom and classroom environments.
The success of the experiment could lead to similar changes at other elementary schools in the Columbia district.
Research and experience from other schools and here indicate that benefits of the new recess schedule are fewer stomachaches, better lunchroom behavior, more attention to hand-washing, less food waste and calmer pupils in the classroom.
Bonnie Licklider, who works in the Rock Bridge cafeteria, said she’s noticed children have seemed more interested in their food since the change in routine.
“They come in after they play hard, and they are ready to eat,” Licklider said. “It’s a better, positive lunch experience all around.”
Tanya Winchester, a fourth-grade teacher at Rock Bridge Elementary, said her students are more relaxed and ready for academics.
“The children seem calmer and seem more prepared for learning,” Winchester said. “And it is surprising that not one child has complained.”
Gayla Myers, a principal at Community Elementary School in Coffeyville, said more children are finishing their lunches now that they’re not in a rush to hit the playground. “When the kids don’t think they’ll miss recess, they’ll finish their lunch,” she said.
Angie Gerzen, assistant principal at Rock Bridge Elementary, has seen similar benefits. “We have noticed we don’t have all the stomachaches and vomiting after recess,” Gerzen said.
Gerzen said she has noticed positive changes in behavior. “Issues we were having in the cafeteria, we aren’t having anymore,” Gerzen said. “They are calmer and have had activity. Teachers have noticed they are more ready to learn.”
Before lunch, students can go outside for a 20-minute recess. Then, after a walk to the cafeteria, they have 20 minutes to stand in line, get their lunch and eat.
The system has required some tweaking of schedules, but Gerzen believes the program is working well.
“We’ll probably do it this way next year,” she said.
The new routine is taking off in Montana. Katie Bark, program specialist for the Montana Team Nutrition Program, said about 20 percent of elementary schools in her state have implemented a recess-before-lunch policy.
“Kids have to relearn to eat slower and just relax and socialize instead of rushing out to play,” Bark said.
When pupils are relaxed during lunch, research shows they waste less food. A January 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children consumed more calories and nutrients — including calcium, vitamin A and iron — when recess was held before lunch. Calcium consumption increased because students tended to drink more milk.
A 1998 study published by Principal, an education journal, found that food waste decreased at Bandelier Elementary School in New Mexico. When pupils had recess after lunch, the average daily weight of discarded food was 89 pounds. With recess before lunch, the waste declined to 75 pounds. The New Mexico study also found evidence that pupils were more “on task” in classes after the recess-to-lunch routine.
Recess before lunch also has positive physical benefits, MU nutrition specialist Ann Cohen said.
“Physiologically, it’s better to exercise before you eat because you are accessing stored fuel,” Cohen said.
Student hand-washing has also increased because of the program. Cohen said that with recess before lunch, schools are more conscious that students’ hands are dirty and often budget time for students to wash hands before eating.
Recess before lunch is one suggestion for other elementary schools under a new wellness initiative being developed by Columbia Public Schools. The policy, which is up for adoption by the Board of Education in June, is mandated by Congress and must be in place by July 1.