Play – then eat?

It’s a time-honored schedule: Kids gobble down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or tater tot casserole then rush out to the playground. That’s the way it has always been and the way it should always be.

But, wait. Why not try it the other way around? Why not let the kids run off their excess energy and work up an appetite before sitting down to lunch? Adults certainly don’t head to the gym after a full meal.

Despite the cognitive dissonance many adults might feel at this unnatural arrangement of things, the Minnesota Department of Education is urging schools to try it. In fact, “recess before lunch” is becoming something of national movement.

Educators in Montana have developed a tool kit for schools to help them implement this low-cost change – Something you might not have thought of: Those little hands are really going to need washing after recess! – while schools all over the country (including Eden Prairie) are giving it a shot.

A 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that kids in grades 1 through 3 ate more – and more of the right stuff, veggies included – when they ate after playing, rather than before. Peers, it seems, are pretty good at luring a slower eater out to the playground. Also, the researchers observed getting stomachaches and feeling dizzy while playing outside after eating. Teachers report that calming kids down and preparing them to learn is much easier after lunch than directly after recess.

“When recess is scheduled before lunch, children come to lunch ready to eat and are less distracted. Children pay attention, achieve more, and have a more positive school experience when they’re not hungry,” the report concluded.

Still playing

Recess itself may be going the way of the teeter-totter, according to some reports. One widely circulated number has 40 percent of school districts considering eliminating or reducing recess in 1999. Higher pressure on schools to produce measurable academic results is said to be behind the reductions.

But a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 93 percent of elementary schools schedule recess for grades one and two, while 87 percent schedule recess for grade six. The vast majority of schools offer recess every day; over 50 percent offer more than 20 minutes of recess.

That’s high, but not high enough, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which is calling on all schools to provide at least one daily 20-minute recess. (Minnesota, like many states, has no statewide regulations on recess.)

One of the leading experts on recess, University of Minnesota professor of educational psychology, published \Recess: Its Role in Education and Development last year. Pellegrini debunks two common anti-recess claims – that it detracts from the learning environment and that it is fertile ground for bullying behaviors – while reminding us all of the value of play.

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