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Recess before lunch or lunch before recess? That is the question

Jan 08, 2020 01:02PM ● By Julie Slama

Logisitcs, schedules and staff supervision are part of the concerns school administrators across the Salt Lake Valley have when making the decision of which to have first - recess or lunch. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

Sprucewood second-grader Mary-Ann Whitaker loves playing on the monkey bars and since the school switched its recess to before lunch this year, she’s happier to get out to them sooner.

“I like recess before lunch because when we play, we get hungrier,” she said. “Before, a lot of food got wasted that people spent time cooking for us and that wasn’t right.”

Her mother, Karla-Ann, supports the school’s switch from the traditional lunch before recess.

“It makes sense,” she said. “Kids get their energy out, sit down and are able to concentrate on eating. Plus, they calm down during lunch and my kids’ teachers say they’re more focused when its learning time.”

Sprucewood Elementary is one of several schools who have made the move to recess before lunch. Across the Salt Lake Valley, recesses and lunches vary with some schools having reversed it years prior, some that switched have returned to the traditional lunch before recess, and some schools are content with how it is working at their school with lunch first.

Before Sprucewood made the decision to switch, Principal Lori Reynolds said there were discussions with her staff, the School Community Council, PTA, Building Leadership Team and the Sandy-Draper parents of students who attend her school. She also had experience with recess first when she was at East Sandy Elementary.

“Our kids are eating more, drinking 40 percent more milk and calming down from their adrenaline high at recess in the lunchroom before they head into the classroom,” Reynolds said. “Many of them already have talked to their friends at recess, so now they’re actually eating and we’re wasting less food. Before, we had trays and trays of uneaten food as they wanted to get outside to play.”

At Sprucewood, the lunch period begins outside for 17 minutes before the doors open for 20 minutes to eat.

“Recess first has eliminated so many conflicts,” recess aide Chris Carlson said. “The students have enough time to play and get an appetite. At first, I was worried there was not enough time to eat, but we adjusted it.”

Sprucewood recess aides line students up according to their lunch choice outside before entering the school building. The lunch options are announced, color-coded and each line leader is given a popsicle stick of that color so once they are in the cafeteria, the staff knows which meals to serve.

Sprucewood Nutrition Manager Angela Floyd said that now students who have been “amped up on the playground, come in hungry, adjust to their inside voices, and don’t have to rush through their food. They come in to eat, which will help them learn.”

She sees them not only drinking milk, but eating more fruits and vegetables. The students have a countdown clock, so they know how much time is left before class time and teachers return from their contracted lunch time to pick up the students. 

In addition, classrooms can earn the “golden spatula” award by using indoor voices, staying seated, raising their hands to dump their trays, cleaning their tables and lining up quickly and quietly, Floyd said.

According to the National Food Service Management Institute, “when students go to recess before lunch, they do not rush through lunch and tend to eat a more well-balanced meal including more foods containing vitamins, such as milk, vegetables and fruit.”

In a 2014 study published in Preventative Medicine, researchers investigated how recess-first impacts what students eat during their school meals. Seven elementary schools in Orem participated in the study that showed school children consume 54 percent more fruits and vegetables at lunch if they eat after recess.

In the report, Cornell Behavioral Economist and Co-Founder of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, David Just said, “Recess is often held after lunch so children hurry to ‘finish’ so that they can go play. This results in wasted fruits and vegetables. However, we found that if recess is held before lunch, students come to lunch with healthy appetites and less urgency and are more likely to eat their fruits and vegetables. While not every school has the flexibility to offer recess before lunch, those that do have a great opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of their students.”

Why don’t more schools make the switch?

Sometimes “re-inventing the wheel” can seem like an insurmountable task and often times, traditions can be deeply-rooted, said Daybreak Elementary Assistant Principal Todd Theobold.

While the South Jordan school is on the traditional lunch schedule, he supports recess first, having had 15 years previous experience with recess first at both Majestic and Willow Canyon elementaries in Jordan and Canyons school districts, respectively.

“There’s a growing trend toward recess first, but others feel strongly about holding onto the tradition of lunch first,” he said. “I prefer recess first as it engages kids in activities, friendship, they learn rules of the games on the playground and have a set amount of time to eat so it’s much calmer and significantly less food waste. We include time to clean up and to transition back to academic time.  When it is lunch first, kids come back all sweaty and hot to the classroom and nobody can really calm down quickly from that.”

However, he said that Daybreak’s lunchtime schedule is working. It allows students 18 minutes of the 40 minutes to eat first.

“You’ll never make everybody happy; it’s just their preferences. Some people don’t like change, but kids are adaptive,” he said.

Some of the concerns for implementing recess-first center around scheduling and logistics of the school building, staff supervision and handwashing.

Sprucewood second-grader Mary-Ann Whitaker, who has had lunch before and after recess, supports her school’s decision to have recess first so she can get hungrier before going to the cafeteria. (Julie Slama/City Journals)


Scheduling & logistics

While that recess-first model works well for Sprucewood, Sarah Hodson, executive director of Get Healthy Utah said each school may have to tweak its schedules to best fit their community.

“There are real benefits to recess-first,” she said. “Students aren’t stuck in a lunchroom, hurrying out to play. They are more settled down when it’s classroom time since they’ve already adjusted from coming inside. They’re more active outside so they’re coming in hungrier. But changing schedules can be a barrier and principals will need to re-evaluate how to use staff outside and in the lunchroom, and even staggering recess and lunch times to make it work.”

She said that much of the logistics may be around the lunchroom size so lunch time may need to accommodate more than one grade. 

“Schools need to get through the kinks, and some schools keep tweaking it for a full year before they get it running smoothly,” she said. “But this gives them more opportunity to fully play, fully eat and they learn better in the classroom.”

Get Healthy Utah has sample lunch and recess schedules as well as tips on adapting recess first, including to communicate with all the staff, parents and students about the change and to “be flexible and willing to try different things.”

Academy Park Principal Pauline Longberg agrees that logistics and the location of the lunchroom can be major factors in the success of transitioning from traditional lunch to recess first.

For six years, she was principal at Beehive Elementary in Magna, where lunch came first and everything ran smoothly.  The past five, she has been at the West Valley elementary where the previous principal changed it to recess first.

“Each has its pros and cons, but for some schools, logistically, it would be difficult and too cumbersome to line students up at the playground if it is on one side of the school, like Beehive, to then get to the cafeteria on the other,” she said. “It currently works here (at Academy Park) as the cafeteria is right by the playground and we have an advantage with Playworks (structured recess program) at our school, helping students in a pro-active recess program, and helping transition into the lunchroom.”

Longberg said that it wasn’t easy adaption and involved changing things along the way.

“We had to figure out the systems to make sure our structure works for us,” she said.

That includes as student enter the lunchroom, they go through the cafeteria line and sit at tables in that order. They also are excused to leave in that order, which allows those who enter the cafeteria last to have the same amount of time to eat as those who enter first.  Those who bring their lunch from home can immediately grab it out of a bin brought from their classroom, so they may get a few more minutes to eat than their peers, Longberg said. 

East Midvale Principal Matt Nelson has kept to the traditional timetable.

“Logistically, it works with our schedule,” he said. “The students are in the cafeteria for 15 minutes before they raise their hands to be excused. We looked at recess first, but this works for our school. It would be a huge system to change to put together times to eat, play, and have instruction. We’d have to add more transition time.”

Ridgecrest Principal Julie Winfree said that her Cottonwood Heights students eat and socialize before raising their hands to go to recess.

“If you start with recess, when do you bring them in?” she said. “Kids need different amounts of times to eat and younger kids are typically slower eaters.”

Jordan Ridge teacher Kim Sanders said her South Jordan school had many discussions about the order before keeping with the traditional schedule.

“We wait for 10 minutes after they’re in the lunchroom before we turn the (paper) eagle around to allow them to go outside,” she said. “We want kids to have time to eat their lunch and digest it before they go outside to play.”

However, Twin Peaks secretary Susan Seals says that playing first at her Murray elementary has resulted in less “side aches and tummies hurting” than the traditional lunch order.

Murray School District spokeswoman D Wright said lunch and recess schedules vary from school to school, with determinations made for a variety of reasons, including scheduling of the lunchroom and playgrounds.

Longview Elementary Principal Becky Teo said she has kept with the schedule of her predecessor – a combination of both orders. Some of her students eat first, then play while others play first, then eat. 

Her transitions allow 120 to 160 students in the Murray lunchroom at a given time and fourth- through sixth-graders rotating to help with lunch service.

“It’s partly because of the size of our school and the number of kids in a given time who can sit in our lunchroom,” Teo said. “Our younger friends eat better with recess first, but our older grades know enough to eat a good lunch.”

While the decisions are made at each Canyons School District school, health/PE/Playworks specialist Allie Teller Teller, who is a “big fan of recess first,” helps administrators who want to convert from the traditional method. She has models they can follow and consults regularly with schools to help problem-solve logistics.

“We know factors weigh into the decision from the lunchroom size and location to the staff support and it really can look different from school to school. Lunch first has more wiggle room for students to go through the lunch line, but kids eat more when they play first,” Teller said. 

Staff supervision

Longberg said that her staff supports Academy Park’s recess before lunch.

“We’re very fortunate that our staff wants to be here to help students and so we have different people assigned to help in the lunchroom for that part of the day to help the younger students through the line and to make sure lunchtime is eating time,” she said. 

Theobold said at his previous schools, he had a lunch crew dedicated to those two hours to set up, monitor and clean up the cafeteria as well as address students’ concerns. 

Copperview Elementary Principal Jeri Rigby said that her Midvale school remains on the traditional schedule for numerous reasons, one being that she can’t get students through the cafeteria line and seated without more personnel.  

That also was her experience when she was an assistant principal at Midvale Elementary.

“We didn’t have more personnel to bring in, administrators were already there helping, and we couldn’t ask teachers because they have their 30-minute uninterrupted contracted lunch time,” she said. “We also didn’t find that students were significantly eating better.”

She said the traditional lunch worked better logistically at the school and “the supervision of students in the lunchroom and playground were better.”  Even the transition to have teachers bring students in from recess, they found to be smoother “as expectations were clear with this routine,” she said.

Crescent Elementary in Sandy tested recess first this past fall before switching it back.

Amongst the reasons for the traditional routine, Principal Camie Montague said, “We changed back because it took double the resources to bring kids in from recess and manage the lunchroom.”


According to Action for Healthy Kids, “Hand-washing is important for food safety and students should wash hands before eating, especially during cold and flu season.”

Making sure students washed their hands after recess before lunch was a concern of Crescent Elementary teacher Cindy Carling.

At Sprucewood, they address that issue. After students enter the building, and before they reach the cafeteria, students are given a squirt of hand-sanitizer.  

Some school administrators acknowledge it is an added expense and there may be school district guidelines about which brands of sanitizers they can use so even if hand-sanitizer is donated, they may not be able to use it.

Other schools have solved this issue by routing their students through restrooms to get to the lunchroom or have set up a wash station in the cafeteria itself.

Other concerns

Montague said Crescent had goals in mind when they tested recess first.

“We changed our lunch at the beginning of the year, with a focus on de-escalating behaviors so that students weren’t bringing playground drama into the classroom, (they had) longer time to eat and (we were able to handle) discipline from the playground during lunchroom time instead of class time,” she said.  “We changed back because behaviors were escalated, once kids were done eating there was nowhere for them to go and nothing to do; and as fall started to approach, I became more aware of students that do not have proper attire for being outside for the winter. All students had to go to recess with the new way, changing back allow students to remain inside as long as they are quietly talking to friends and seated.”

She also said that her school “actually lost instructional time due to lining up and clean-up time of all kids in a grade level being excused to clean up at the same time.”

Hodson said with adjusting to recess first, many schools find there to be a need to discuss rules and expectations in student behavior.

“Students will need to learn what the behavior expectations are so the transitions work smoothly,” she said, adding that changing to recess before lunch will impact most every school employee so communication with everyone is important.

Canyons’ Teller said that “having intentional transitions and understanding of expectations can help a lot. They can help mitigate the craziness and decrease their excitement from the playground into focusing on lunch and study.”

Playworks-Utah program director Ashley Engeler said that her organization supports recess first, with intentional transitions to calming students as they enter the cafeteria and from there to the classroom. 

As a Playworks coach previously at two schools, Engeler said she would often try to calm students in line with “three deep volcano breaths” before entering the lunchroom.

“With recess first, it’s less chaotic, less food waste, behaviors go down and students are more highly engaged when they return to their classrooms,” she said. “If they don’t (have recess first), students throw away more food, are apt to get in angrier moods, resulting in more behavioral problems, and they trickle to transition into the classroom.”

Woodstock Elementary in Murray has recess first.

Woodstock Principal Brenda Byrnes cites students are able to get their energy out so they come in hungrier and then when they return to the classroom, they are calmer.

“We teach them about self-regulation so they know how much time they have to play outside, but also how they manage their time to eat their proteins and drink milk in the cafeteria,” she said. “It has become a smoother transition for us and a lot less waste.”

Granite School District Director of Children Nutrition Dana Adams said that recess before lunch “has always been tossed around.” 

“At the central kitchen, we haven’t seen an increase (of food consumption with recess before lunch) that we can track,” she said. “It’s a decision for our principals and our communities to decide which works best for them.”