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Why recess should take place before lunch at school

There's a growing movement to schedule recess before lunch. Here's why.

As a parent, sometimes you can observe things in your kids that seem like common knowledge, but the research behind it can be slow to catch up. For example, there has been a growing movement to schedule recess before lunch in schools—several studies suggest a multitude of benefits—but it's something that I've seen time and again in my own home. When I see these studies, the parent in me has the urge to say, "Well, yeah!" and I find myself asking why this needs to be a "thing." When change is needed, however, sometimes a "movement" is just what is required.

In my home, I've found that if my kids physically played before lunch, it was easier to get them to eat, and they argued less about what kinds of options they were presented with. It was the perfect time to sneak in those fruits, veggies, milk, and whole grains!

The concept just makes sense. Think about it: all of us—kids and adults—get hungrier after we exercise, we're more apt to eat what's in front of us, and we're all generally in a better state of mind when we finish eating. For me, as someone who studies the brain, it's also easy to see how optimal physical and cognitive health goes hand in hand to improve the functioning of our brains.

And improvement in eating and thinking is the basis for the "Recess Before Lunch" movement, which started in 2002 after the Montana Office of Public Instruction conducted a pilot study among schools willing to swap lunch and recess. Officials found that students were eating more of the healthy food provided, and even found improved classroom behavior.  Another study out of New Mexico found that in schools that held recess before lunch, students ate 20 percent more vegetables, 36 percent more fruit, and drank 45 percent more milk.

Making sure kids have access to—and are eating—healthy foods in schools is also important; in 2015, new nutrition guidelines were released the USDA for schools, and included increasing amounts of fruits and vegetables and whole grains; providing only lower fat milks; managing calories based on the age of the child; and reducing saturated and trans fats and sodium.  However, a 2002 report to Congress found that up to 12 percent of food can go uneaten at lunch, reducing the full benefits of all that nutrition. But, as we've just seen, moving recess before lunch can help with food consumption.

Optimal physical health goes hand in hand and with the health and improved function of our brains. Exposure to physical activity, in particular, provides a good brain break and stimulates growth factors in the brain that help us think faster and better. And while most school districts have shortened kids' exposure to recess, there is still a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics for schools to provide recess as part of the 60 minutes of recommended activity for kids to promote social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development in kids.

Both a well-balanced lunch and exposure to physical activity are extremely important, as we know that what we eat, and how we move, are tied to how we think.  In other words, giving kids a brainpower burst is incredibly important during a long school day!

Although changing the order of activities in a school can be difficult, the benefits appear to outweigh the costs. With pressures to improve goals other than academics, such as overall health and wellness of students, schools should seriously consider RBL.  And you can be an advocate—give your school this guide to change and ask them how you can help promote a better lunch and recess schedule in your school!

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