Putting schoolchildren on the playground before lunch may be the best way to boost their appetites while cutting food waste and discipline problems, says a new study from Ball State University.

The study, “Attitudes, Perceived Benefits and Barriers and Prevalence of Scheduling Recess Before Lunch: A Survey of Indiana Elementary School Principals,” found that many elementary school principals were unaware of the potential benefits of a simple change in routine.

“Historically, school administrators schedule recess immediately after lunch,” said Carol Friesen, a nutrition and dietetics professor. “Recent research, however, finds there are many benefits if recess is scheduled before lunch, including decreased food waste, increased consumption of nutrients, fewer discipline problems on the playground or lunchroom and an improved learning atmosphere.”

In schools that schedule recess before lunch, 82 percent of the principals in the study stated they would recommend scheduling recess before lunch to other schools. Principals said the most common barriers to making a change included a clear need to revise the daily schedule (28%), issues related to academic hours (27%), staffing issues (19%) and inadequate space in the lunchroom and playground (15%).

Friesen reports that some schools are also concerned about breaking of tradition. “They believe that it must be OK because they’ve always done it this way,” she said. “However, let’s take a look at the research. Clearly, we can improve the educational experience by making simple revisions.”

The study, based on 527 valid surveys collected from Indiana elementary school principals, found:

  • In schools that schedule recess before lunch, principals reported the following benefits: increased consumption of lunch (52%), improved student behavior in the cafeteria (45%), increased focus on consuming lunch (37%), students more attentive during class (28%) and decreased food waste (27%).
  • Despite not currently scheduling recess before lunch, the majority of participants indicated that they would consider scheduling recess before lunch (81%).
  • More than half of the principals (53%) indicated that they were unaware of the research surrounding recess before lunch.
  • Schools having only one lunch period were more likely to have recess after, compared to before, lunch.

If more principals and school faculty become knowledgeable about this topic, the more likely this practice will become prevalent as will the benefits, Friesen said.

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