Benefits and Challenges of Recess before Lunch

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Scheduling Recess According to School Lunch
  • Impact of School Recess Before Lunch on Behavior
  • Impact of Recess on Academic Performance
  • Implementation of Reversed Schedule of Recess
  • Challenges to Switching to Recess First and Then Lunch
  • Strategies for Successful Implementation of Recess Before Lunch
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Recommendations for Future Research
  • Conclusion

"Any school schedule is the cornerstone for supporting increased student achievement. The “schedule” helps school employees focuses on specific times for instruction and intervention, it holds EVERYONE accountable, and can be the quickest way to create positive changes in your building.

Whether your school implements the new RBL (recess before lunch) or any other changes to the schedule the most important people to keep in mind are the STUDENTS. These schedule changes or frameworks may or may not be beneficial for them. Before making any change it is important to do an overall “check up” and prioritize where changes may NEED to be made, because if it is not broke

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…. Why fix it? Is the old standing tradition better for our students or should schools jump on the bandwagon of switching recess to before lunch. This article will review the literature, benefits, challenges, and conclusion of educators and researchers views on the topic of recess before lunch.


When people think of recess they think of a time during the school day for young children to go outside and run around. Some also think that the physical activity displayed on the playground will make them tired so that when they return to the classroom and be tired just enough to sit still and focus for the remainder of the day. That's not really the purpose of recess. Instead, recess has four main goals. First, it is important to provide children with physical activity each day. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) and the American Heart Association (2014) recommend children receive at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. Unfortunately, most kids do not receive nearly that much physical activity on a daily basis. In fact, during the typical school day some schools only offer 10 to 20 minutes of recess time each day. Second, recess is time to develop social-emotional skills. Recess allows students to socialize with classmates in an unstructured environment. This type of socialization is important in helping them develop their self-esteem and appropriate social skills. Third, recess allows for the absorption of vitamin D, which is essential in keeping our immune systems strong. The sun is our main source of vitamin D and getting outside each day in the sunlight is valuable in helping to keep the students healthy. Finally, recess provides the body with fresh air. The fresh air oxygenates the students blood and helps keep them awake and alert for the remainder of the day. Physical activity, social-emotional development, sunlight, and fresh air are the reasons why every child should go outside to recess every day.

As an intervention specialist my students in my classroom are in need of recess and a healthy lunch, finding the best fit in the schedule for when it takes place during the school day is important. The importance not only helps their academic accomplishments but improves their behavior and healthy lifestyles. In addition, research over the past decade has shown that students who are more physically active and fit perform better academically and behave better in school than students who are not active and fit. As educators if you are looking to help your students become better learners, as well as better behaved, then recess should be considered an essential part of the school day. Now the question is... should they go out before or after lunch?

For many generations, recess has always followed lunch. In many schools a growing number of educators are questioning this tradition of eating the school lunch, before racing outside to play foursquare. Has the time come for a change? This is the question that is being asked as schools begin to investigate alternative lunch schedules as a way to increase student nutrition and student performance. Throughout this article I would like to share the results of my inquiry into the possible shift towards Recess Before Lunch (RBL) and its impact on student nutrition, behavior and academic performance, as well as the issues that surround implementation.

Literature Review

The findings of my literature review on Recess vs. Lunch: Which should be first? was itemized into the positive effects that recess and lunch has on our students into four categories: effects on nutrition, effects on behavior, effects on academic performance, and issues of implementation.

Scheduling Recess According to School Lunch

The United States Department of Agriculture has established rigorous, research-based and forward-thinking nutrition standards for school meals. Adding a nutritious school meal to the school day eating before going out to recess brings up two concerns regarding the effects of the school lunch schedule on eating habits and nutrition. One is the potential for students to “undereat” and the other is the potential for students to “overeat” in their rush to be first on the playground. Getting outside to play is the first priority for many children, so hurrying through their food is not uncommon and kids in a hurry may only eat part of their lunch (Yara, 2005). Educators have also noticed that students excited to go play will often choose less nutritious items from their lunch that hurry up and finish to get out to play on the playground. On the other hand, the excitement of the playground and short eating period may cause students to overeat. Overeating is a negative effect of eating rapidly and can contribute to obesity as children are conditioned to eat at a faster rate and do not rely on normal cues related to being full (Buergel, Bergan, Knutson, & Lindaas, 2002). Any bad eating habits are of concern as health and nutrition moves up the priority list in schools. Fortunately, the literature suggests that the reverse lunch schedule may be a better replacement as it improves student nutrition in two ways. This schedule gives students more time, to eat their lunches because they do not feel rushed. The reverse school lunch schedule also improves student nutrition, as children are able to exercise and build up an appetite for the healthier items in their lunches. (Hetzner, 2005).

During a study in Montana 80% of principals and other educators witnessed students taking only 3-5 minutes during their lunch period to eat then quickly dumping their tray. This behavior lead to the inability to eat a balanced meal. A study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found students who had recess first ate 54 percent more fruits and vegetables compared with students who had lunch first. Not getting a full, balanced meal can leave children hungry during the rest of the school day which then leads to decreased academic performance and excessive unhealthy snacking after school. Research shows, “increased fruit and vegetables” in young children can have positive long term health effects. A study published in the Journal of Child and Nutrition Management found students wasted less food when they had recess first. In the study, plate waste decreased from more than 40 percent to 27 percent in two rural Washington elementary schools that changed their schedule to have lunch after recess. Additionally, decreasing waste of fruits and vegetables is important for schools and districts that are faced with high costs of offering healthier food choices. The cost of moving recess to before lunch is nothing but can be a way to make kids eat healthy and help the school meal program become more effective.

Impact of School Recess Before Lunch on Behavior

Another benefit of the reverse lunch schedule is its effect on student behavior. Principals and teachers in a study done in Montana of reverse lunch routines noted decreased behavioural problems on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the halls. According to Yara’s (2005) article, students are more focused and ready to learn in the afternoon when the reverse lunch schedule is in place. Delisio (2005) also reported that one of the schools experienced a dramatic shift in student behaviour following the change to a reverse lunch schedule. It is apparent that advocates of the reverse lunch schedule in elementary and middle schools agree that eating lunch after play can “provide a calming buffer between frenetic play and quiet classroom work” (Hetzner, 2005).

Research by the Montana Team Nutrition Program, an arm of the state’s Office of Public Education, found that having recess first decreased in discipline problems on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in the classroom.

Impact of Recess on Academic Performance

Under the reverse lunch schedule it becomes apparent that good nutrition plays an important role in learning (Hetzner, 2005) and many studies show a direct link between nutrition, physical activity and academic performance (Potts-Datema, 2005). The National School Lunch Program reports that eating nutritious, balanced meals during childhood can provide benefits in terms of health, well-being, and academic achievement. Additionally, coupling physical activity with healthful eating helps to optimize physical and cognitive development (Guthrie & Buzby, 2002).

Implementation of Reversed Schedule of Recess

We all know that “re-inventing the wheel” can seem like an overwhelming and unappealing task, but implementing a system in which students eat lunch after recess might be easier than you thought. With proper planning, cost-benefit analysis and flexibility, the future of health standards can reside right in your very school district.” (Grilio, 2018) Making change to a traditionally untouched schedule does not come without some challenges. There may be resistance to change, but groups of teachers and members of the school community who realize the need for change will be better able to overcome the long-standing culture surrounding lunch schedules and do what is necessary to improve the school schedule for our students. One of the biggest resistors to a students lifestyle changing can be their parents. Inherently, people don’t like change, especially parents when it comes to changes that affect their children. If you choose to implement recess before lunch, it will be important to manage parent concerns respectfully and confidently. (Grillio, 2018)

Challenges to Switching to Recess First and Then Lunch

Changing the recess and lunch schedule, however, raises some concerns for administration. These limitations fall into the categories of finances, sanitation and buy in from educators and parents.

When students come in from playground to cafeteria, students need to wash their hands, as well as do something with their outside wear. Hand sanitizers can help with the hand-washing problem, although many adopters of recess before lunch recommend building in hand-washing time before students enter the cafeteria.

Schools address these problems in various ways. Sharon Elementary in New Jersey, for example, allows students more time to return coats to their lockers with less clothing ending up in the lost and found, Sinkewicz told the Times.

Delaying lunch also puts additional strain on students from low-income families who often do not eat breakfast. To help hungry students who partook in the recess before lunch program suggest having a mid-morning snack. This mid morning snack was also beneficial to the school breakfast program and promoted healthy eating as well.

As stated above in the implementation category the teacher and parent buy in is and important area to focus for administrators that are trying to implement recess before lunch. According to Melinda Bossenmeyer, a veteran educator, former school principal, and president of Peaceful Playgrounds, the greatest resistance normally encountered comes from parents. The school staff will also come up with some other concerns, around testing and cafeteria demands. Schools need to seek educator and parent input and do their part to inform the school community about the benefits of the program.

One challenge that schools saw after implementing the Recess before Lunch program was to teach the children to eat slower. In the past, children often finished lunch in five minutes so they could get to recess. With the scheduling change, cafeteria workers had to encourage the students to slow down and use the entire time to eat their lunch.

Strategies for Successful Implementation of Recess Before Lunch

Since there are both strengths and weaknesses that have been observed when implementing RBL amongst many school districts. Research shows that creating a welcoming, positive environment for successful implementation may be a crucial factor. In a study conducted by Bounds et al. (2009), four-point Likert-type scale surveys were distributed among school nutrition directors, elementary school administrators, and elementary teachers within 700 public school districts. Participants were asked to rank 27 issues related to scheduling of RBL and 33 issues related to the successful implementation of RBL. The participants reported that when scheduling RBL, the most important factors to consider were related to: student feeding implications RBL’s influence on student behavior in the classroom and cafeteria, scheduling; personnel support and associated workload; and logistics in hand-washing and managing outdoor clothing and sack lunches. However, when assessing aspects to consider for a successful implementation of RBL, having strong leadership roles, the collaboration of all involved parties, and flexibility in regards to a new schedule was rated among the top factors. The results of these studies suggest that implementing RBL may need a team-oriented approach to be successful.


The research team developed a survey to develop a better understanding of educators’ attitudes regarding school scheduling as a whole. We created a survey with eighteen questions addressing different topics on the importance of the school schedule. The questions included both closed- and open-ended responses. The topics that were covered throughout the survey were focused on the educators perspectives on inclusion vs. pull-out services, adequate start times for adolescent needs, year-round school schedules and the debate of recess before lunch. The survey was given out toward the end of the school year and eighteen educators completed it. The questions used in regards to recess before lunch were to gather more information if schools participated in the RBL already, the educators’ opinions/attitudes towards their preference of the RBL schedule and if the educator could see any benefits from participating in the RBL schedule.


The first question was to get a feel on who or who does not participate in RBL. The results from our survey showed that 38.9% of the population still participated in the long standing tradition of lunch before recess, 22% has already made the switch to recess before lunch and 38% stated that their schedules vary throughout the day so some grades have lunch before recess and others have recess before lunch. When the educators were asked if they would be interested in doing a pilot study and switch all lunch schedules to have recess before lunch 70% said that they would be interested, 11% said no, they liked it how it was and the other 15% said things like “I don’t have control over this” and “we are not able to change the lunch schedule.” The final question was an open ended question that was asked was… “Do you think students would benefit or do you see any current benefits from going out for recess before lunch? Here are a few opinion responses from the educators...“More time to focus on eating, and let’s focus on socializing. Also, it would give students a time to cool down before afternoon learning begins. That is always a time that we have to consider in our schedule because it takes our kids a while to cool off and be ready to learn.”and “Yes! When students eat first they tend to eat as quickly as possible and the moment they are able to leave for recess they do. Eating second allows for students to actually eat their food which fuels their bodies. It also cuts down on food waste.” The final question that was asked was about the food waste. 93% of the educators agreed that the food waste would be cut down if recess was before lunch. But when the educators were asked what would be one thing that they would change to your school schedule not one picked to have or make the switch to recess before lunch. Is this a priority?

Recommendations for Future Research

Future research should include looking at qualitative data as well as quantitative on the effects of having recess before lunch. Professionals should conduct studies based when recess takes place in the daily schedule and its effect on test scores. Numbers would help solidify what teachers see on an everyday basis. It would be beneficial to spend time in a classroom and collect data from students. Asking opinions of 37 professionals is one thing, but to see it in action is another. Seeing students and their abilities based on the differing amount of physical activity they receive during the day gives proof of what teachers and principals (and now administrators) are saying about the need for recess during the day and at what time of the day

During my research literature of RBL, I found a high interest from educators on offering recess multiple times and at different times of the day. This type of scheduling is interesting and definitely out of the box thinking but it would be interesting to put the data and qualitative research to the test in comparing the two non traditional ideas of recess throughout the school day.


In conclusion, there are many student benefits to the reasonable argument of the possibility of transitioning to scheduling recess before lunch. Benefits included less wasted food, less time to transition to a more focused mind, and decreased behavioral issues. On the other hand, if you were to decide to modify a deep-rooted tradition, this will be challenging due to challenges like buy in from teachers, schedule changes, and hand washing issues. Using the following recommendations and illustrating the value of this change will make the transition to lunch after recess a seamless conversion. These recommendations from the research are... putting the students first, trying a pilot study, anticipate teacher reluctance, seek out solutions, and be open to change. All educators should listen to Socrates when it comes to scheduling, since it is the cornerstone for supporting increased student achievement. When scheduling and making changes to the schedule think about Socrates as he says “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. “"

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