Schools set a good example for students when they apply new knowledge in practical ways. We have learned, for example, that rescheduling recess just before lunch improves the eating habits and classroom behavior of children, providing a better environment for learning, and builds better habits for healthy kids.

Several Santa Barbara schools have acted on this information, including Washington Elementary, Franklin Elementary, Cesar Chavez Charter School, Adams Elementary, the Santa Barbara Community Academy, and early adopter McKinley Elementary, which started with this new schedule at the end of last year.

Most adults know that eating immediately before exercise is a bad idea, and fitness enthusiasts know that eating after a workout maximizes the nutritional value of food. How often do you eat a five-course meal just before running five miles, playing a pick-up game of basketball, or stepping into your dancercise class?

Here at the Orfalea Foundations, based at UCSB, we promote “Recess First” as part of our s’Cool Food Initiative, which works to bring healthier food choices and nutrition education to local schools. “Recess First” is gaining traction around the country, but old habits are hard to break.

In an ideal school food environment, students would come in from recess, wash their hands, sit at round tables with their teachers, and spend 20 to 30 minutes enjoying a cooked-from-scratch meal. This is not starry-eyed idealism, but practicality. Experience shows that “Recess First” reduces food waste, improves after-lunch attentiveness, reduces disciplinary problems, and improves the health of our children.

Principal Casie Killgore of Franklin Elementary noted that her school is experiencing some challenges associated with success: “We have to reorganize the flow of the lunch room because the line for the salad bar is too long – it’s ten kids deep! The kids are choosing more fruits and vegetables, and the whole lunch period takes slightly longer because the kids actually sit down and eat.” She addded that disciplinary actions are down, because kids have been working hard at recess and come into the lunch room ready to eat.

Still, many schools are reluctant to alter their schedules. Worse, some schools in the U.S. have been eliminating recess periods, despite numerous studies validating the academic value of exercise and play.

A study reported in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, concluded that recess improves a child’s academic performance, suggesting that schools’ elimination of recess periods to spend more time on curricula has been counterproductive. “Recess First” takes this a step further, suggesting that recess is a part of school curriculum, and should be as carefully managed for best results.

Dr. Antronette Yancy of the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities told National Public Radio, “Kids pay better attention to their subjects when they’ve been active. Kids are less likely to be disruptive in terms of classroom behavior when they’re active. Kids feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteem. [They have] less depression, less anxiety – those things can impair academic performance and attentiveness.”

Rescheduling the traditional after-lunch recess multiplies the benefits of exercise and activity, as Dr. Sarah Hartley, principal of Scottsdale, Arizona’s North Ranch Elementary School, told “The teachers love it. They don’t feel like they have to cool down the children after lunch. In the past it could take 15 minutes to settle the kids down after recess. So we found a lot of academic time. We also saw a drop in the number of referrals to the nurse, and the cafeteria reported more kids eating and less food being thrown away.”

Nancy Weiss, director of Nutrition Services for Santa Barbara School Districts, has seen the benefits of “Recess First” here in our own community: “Students are calmer. Their behavior seems more controlled and their attention seems more focused. I attribute this to having had the chance to get their energy out before they eat. They’re not hurrying through lunch to go to recess.”

We’re glad that so many schools in Santa Barbara are now applying the lessons we have learned about the value of recess and the advantages of “Recess First.” We hope many more will choose to benefit from this knowledge.


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