Recess First: Dayle Hayes on the Simple Power of Scheduling Play Before Lunch

Recess Before Lunch
When students get proper nutrition, they are fueled and ready to learn. And educational leaders can play a pivotal role in ensuring that students get adequate nutrition in supportive surroundings.

Feeding the nation’s students is no simple task. The National School Lunch Program served more than 5 billion lunches in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services, and 72 percent of those meals were provided free or at a reduced price.

“School nutritional programs are not seen as integral into the education process,” says Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, and president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc. They are seen as “part of ‘support services’ rather than educational services. It’s not seen as something that is vital to how students perform in schools.”

Dale Hayes

Dale Hayes

Recess before lunch

Montana is a pioneer with the concept of “recess before lunch,” which is also known as “play before eat.” Flipping the traditional schedule of lunch-recess to recess-lunch provides physical activity and maximizes children’s intake of nutrients, says Hayes.

“Recess has recently seen a revival. Physical activity is brain activity,” says Hayes. “It’s not just have recess, it’s when you have it. They’ve had their time to calm down a bit, get their lunch, and then come back into the classroom, and they’re ready to learn.”

In short, when kids run around and play first, it impacts their behavior and nutrition intake when they do sit down to eat.

“The research on schools in Montana shows a very dramatic increase in what children choose off a tray,” says Hayes. “If children are rushing through a meal because they want to get out to recess, they tend to eat the things that are easiest, such as a roll or fruit. When they have recess before lunch, they consume more of their entree — more protein, more vegetables.”

Switching the schedule increases consumption of fruits and vegetables by 54 percent, according to a 2015 study published in “Preventive Medicine.” The number of students who eat at least one produce serving increases by 45 percent.

Positive outcomes include children:

  • eating more food and drinking more milk
  • choosing more nutritious foods, such as vegetables
  • chewing more slowly
  • socializing more with friends
  • behaving better in the cafeteria
  • reducing tray waste
  • transitioning to academic work more quickly once back in the classroom

‘Let’s keep the status quo’

Challenges to recess before lunch mostly come in the classical form of resistance to change. Relatively few educators or students have experienced recess first, and so question the wisdom of changing the status quo.

At some schools, scheduling changes are complex. Educational leaders who are able to get staff, parents, and students on board will experience a smoother transition.

Hayes is based in Montana, but she has worked with a number of other states and school districts that recommend recess before lunch when possible. She has a number of suggestions for educational leaders considering recess before lunch:

  • Do a pilot study first. Experiment with a few classrooms for a limited period of time — say, for a month. This gives people time to get used to the idea without having to commit.
  • Have well-thought out procedures and processes in place for making it work. For example, when and where will children wash their hands after coming off the playground?
  • Train teachers and administrators. Putting thought and care into training will foster cooperation.
  • Determine what metrics you will use to evaluate change. Does the number of students referred for discipline change? How many trash bags are filled by the cafeteria workers at the end of the day? Some budget folks have been convinced by decrease garbage pickup costs alone, says Hayes.

Optimizing the cafeteria experience

In many schools, students sit and eat at tables while adults patrol back and forth, looking for troublemakers.

For elementary schools, Hayes prefers a model where an adult sits at the head of every table in the cafeteria, encouraging conversation.

At schools with older students, alternative seating works well. Instead of long rows, booth seating or high-top tables that students might find at a restaurant work well.

Advice for principals

“Go see what’s going on in your cafeteria. See what it’s like for a student to try and rush in and have breakfast,” suggests Hayes.

At a South Carolina school, one principal had a wake-up call when he went into the cafeteria at breakfast time and saw the enormous logistical challenges of attempting to serve breakfast to 800 students in 20 minutes flat.

Consequently, the school embarked on serving breakfast in the classrooms. Students trained as breakfast ambassadors. They collect meals and bring them back to their class.

Eating together builds community, and also offers interdisciplinary opportunities for integrating food and nutrition topics into the curriculum. For example, elementary school teachers might ask, “If this carton of milk is eight ounces, and you drink half, how much is left?”

The bottom line? “What’s really important is to see school nutrition programs as vital to supporting student academic success,” says Hayes.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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