Recess Placement Prior to Lunch in Elementary Schools: What Are the Barriers? Alice Jo Rainville, PhD, RD, CHE, SFNS; Kay N. Wolf, PhD, RD; and Deborah H. Carr, PhD, RD
Studies have shown that children who have recess placement prior to lunch as an alternative to after lunch consume significantly more food and nutrients and waste less food. Yet, according to the School Health Policies and Programs Study, only 4.6% of elementary schools schedule recess prior to lunch (Wechsler et al., 2001). Therefore, based in part on this evidence, it is important to investigate the barriers to recess placement prior to lunch.
Using focus group research methodology, the National Food Service Management Institute Applied Research Division conducted a study to determine barriers to scheduling recess prior to lunch in schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. After pilot focus groups in a Midwest district were performed, focus group meetings were conducted with homogenous groups of school administrators, school nutrition personnel, teachers, and parents from three school districts in Colorado, Kentucky, and Maine. There were four focus groups in each district, one for each set of stakeholders, held on the same day in each district, with 21-26 study participants per district.
The barriers most frequently mentioned by administrators included: a) preservation of morning hours for academics; b) logistical concerns of supervision, hand washing, and cold weather clothing; c) possible resistance by faculty, staff, and parents; and d) tradition. The barriers most frequently mentioned by school nutrition personnel included: a) supervision; b) movement of children on and off the playground; c) scheduling; and d) cold weather clothing. The barriers most frequently mentioned by teachers were: a) logistics; b) academic priorities; c) willingness of administrators; d) exercise; e) weather; f) scheduling blocks; and g) tradition. The barriers most frequently mentioned by parents were: a) logistical concerns, such as scheduling, staffing, and space; b) winter clothing; c) nutrition beliefs; d) previous experiences with a family member; e) tradition; f) behavior; and g) communication.
Application to Child Nutrition Professionals
The results of this qualitative study provide useful information to school personnel, parents, and state agency professionals in effectively considering the implementation and promotion of recess prior to lunch.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service reports that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is operating in nearly 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. The NSLP provides nutritionally balanced lunches to more than 28 million children each day (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005). The benefits of school meals to children include improved nutrition, health, and well-being; promotion of growth and development; protection against diseases and chronic health conditions; and development of good eating habits (Buzby & Guthrie, 2002). However, a review of plate waste in school nutrition programs conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service (Buzby & Guthrie, 2002) found that in addition to the direct cost of food, plate waste may reduce the nutritional benefits that children receive from the NSLP. An environmental factor that affects consumption and food waste is the placement of recess in relation to the lunch period.
Studies have shown that children who have recess placement prior to lunch instead of after lunch consumed significantly more food and nutrients and wasted less food. Bergman et al. (2004) found that a Washington school with Third through Fifth Grades (n=1119) that had recess prior to lunch had 27.2% food waste, as compared to 40.1% in a school with Third through Fifth Grades (n=889) that had recess after lunch. Also, the intake of calories and nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A, and iron was significantly greater for all students when recess was scheduled prior to lunch (p < 0.0001). A study conducted in an Illinois school with First through Third Grades (n=67) (Getlinger et al., 1996) found that overall food waste decreased from 34.9% to 24.3% when recess was scheduled before lunch. The study also found that recess after lunch tended to cause stomach discomfort and dizziness in many students. Researchers concluded that recess scheduling is a factor that teachers, school nutrition staff, and school administrators can control to enhance student achievement.
Ruppenthal and Hogue (1977) conducted a plate waste study in a California school with First through Third Grades (n= 90) and found that vegetable, salad, fruit, and milk waste decreased when recess was scheduled before lunch. Based on the study results, school administrators scheduled recess before lunch and did not receive any complaints from parents or students. Smith (1980) described positive experiences he enjoyed as a principal when recess was scheduled before lunch in his California school. He found that plate waste decreased and students returned to the classroom ready to learn. Read and Moosburner (1985) found that Fourth- and Fifth-grade students in a Nevada school wasted less milk when recess was scheduled prior to lunch. The Montana Team Nutrition Program worked with four schools to promote its Recess BeforeLunch policy (The Montana Office of Public Instruction School Nutrition Programs Pilot Project Report, 2003). Program administrators found that the average amount of food and beverage waste decreased after policy implementation. Surveys of school administrators, teachers, and school nutrition personnel found that the atmosphere in the cafeterias was more relaxed, quiet, and conducive to eating. They also found there was a dramatic decrease in discipline problems on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the classroom, and that children returned to class more settled, calmer, and ready to learn. Focus groups of children shared that they liked being able to play prior to having lunch.
The Montana Team Nutrition Web site [http://www.opi.mt.gov/schoolfood/RecessBL.html] provides a guidebook with resources and supporting information that school personnel can use to create a plan to implement recess prior to lunch. The guidebook was developed after the completion of the Recess Before Lunch project (The Montana Office of Public Instruction School Nutrition Programs Pilot Project Report, 2003). Many benefits of scheduling recess prior to lunch have been documented. Yet, the School Health Policies and Programs Study indicates only 4.6% of elementary schools schedule recess prior to lunch (Wechsler, Brenuer, Kuester, & Miller, 2001). Therefore, it is important to investigate barriers to scheduling recess prior to lunch.
This study used a focus group methodology to explore barriers to recess placement prior to lunch in elementary schools as perceived by school administrators, school nutrition personnel, teachers, and parents. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research (Krueger & Casey, 2000) was used as the basis for developing the research method. Data were collected in a systematic approach by asking semi-structured, open-ended questions. Each question had a distinctive function in the focus group research process. The Eastern Michigan University Human Subjects Committee and The Ohio State University Internal Review Board approved the research protocol and focus group questions.
Participant Selection School districts were selected to include four USDA regions ( Midwest, Mountain Plains, Northeast, Southeast) and current recess placement after lunch in elementary schools. These four regions were selected so that this study would involve opinions from diverse participants in different areas of the United States. Foodservice directors in these regions were contacted via phone and E- mail to determine current recess placement and their willingness to host focus groups in their districts. Focus group participants were invited by the researcher and/or the school nutrition personnelin the district.
Focus Group Meetings Four pilot focus group meetings, one for each type of participant, were conducted with school administrators, school nutrition personnel, teachers, and parents (n=22 total) from elementary schools in Novi, MI. School administrators included principals, assistant principals, superintendents, and district health administrators. School nutrition participants included food and nutrition directors and supervisors, managers, nutrition assistants, and lunch supervisors.
Pilot focus group meetings were convened in Denver, CO (n=24 total), Kenton County, KY (n=21 total), and South Portland, ME (n=26 total) during Spring 2005. Following the pilot focus group meetings, a review of the focus group questions and plan was completed. The researchers refined and finalized a series of questions designed to explore barriers to recess placement before lunch in elementary schools. The questions were as follows:
Please tell us your name and the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "recess."
How do you feel about recess before lunch?
Are you aware of the research that shows children eat better, waste less food, and behave better with recess scheduled prior to lunch? Can you share your thoughts about this?
What is the greatest barrier to having recess prior to lunch?
What is the greatest barrier to scheduling recess prior to lunch?
What would it take for you to change your schedule to recess prior to lunch? (administrators only)
Are there specific issues that affect (teachers, school nutrition personnel, parents only) regarding recess before lunch?
How could administrators be convinced to schedule recess prior to lunch?
Is there anything we should have talked about but didn't?
Of all the topics we discussed, which one is the most important to you?
The same individual moderated all of the focus group meetings. The assistant moderator/recorder compiled notes. Throughout the focus group sessions, the moderator used a structured approach to keep the discussion focused on the selected questions. Each focus group session was tape recorded and transcribed so that a complete record of the discussion was available for analysis.
The pilot focus group transcripts were not included in the analysis. The "long table" methodology of Krueger and Casey (2000) was used to analyze transcripts from the focus group meetings. In this method, the transcripts were color-coded by location, cut apart by comment, and arranged by content on large sheets of paper. Independently, researchers also conducted a systematic, question-by-question, analysis of the transcripts. Then comments for each question were thematically categorized and summarized.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Comparing the summarized comments from each session revealed a series of 13 themes that occurred throughout all focus group discussions. Comments from school administrators, teachers, and school nutrition participants focused on district-wide and school-wide issues, while comments from parents were more likely to be school-specific and child-specific, rather than across schools.
Barriers most frequently mentioned by administrators included: a) preservation of morning hours for academics; b) logistical concerns about supervision, hand washing, and cold weather clothing; c) possible resistance by faculty, staff, and parents; and d) tradition. School nutrition personnel most frequently mentioned the following barriers: a) supervision; b) movement of children on and off the playground; c) scheduling; and d) winter clothing. Barriers most frequently mentioned by teachers were: a) logistics; b) academic priorities; c) willingness of administrators; d) exercise; e) weather; f) scheduling blocks; and g) tradition. Parents most frequently mentioned these barriers: a) logistical concerns about scheduling, staffing, and space; b) winter clothing; c) nutrition beliefs; d) previous experiences with a family member; e) tradition; f) behavior; and g) communication.
Tables 1-4 summarize the identified themes, with the type of participant identified. Quotations of representative comments are italicized. Despite the barriers that were identified, participants predicted positive outcomes for recess prior to lunch, including less food waste, better consumption of nutritious lunches, behavior improvement, and the potential to solve recess conflicts during lunch instead of during afternoon classes (Table 1).
The key barriers that participants discussed included preservation of morning hours for academic subjects, supervision concerns on the playground and in the cafeteria, hand washing concerns, and coats and cold weather clothing (Table 2). The timing of lunch was an issue of concern for some focus group participants (Table 2). Parents wondered if children who did not eat breakfast would be too hungry if lunch was moved to a later time. The school district in Maine included a time for eating morning snacks that were brought to school by each student. The timing of the snack was a concern, because in some schools it was scheduled too close to lunch. If morning snacks are part of a school schedule, then the timing of snacks should not be too close to lunch. School nutrition personnel did not foresee any barriers for having recess prior to lunch as relating to their job responsibilities (Table 2).
Table 3 focuses on the topics of tradition and resistance to the idea of recess prior to lunch. The tradition of recess after lunch is a barrier for some school personnel and parents. Participants also predicted possible resistance from some teachers and lunch aides.
Some school administrators were open to the idea of recess prior to lunch and their comments on student learning are presented in Table 4. For convincing school administrators who were not as open to the idea,school nutrition personnel thought that administrators would be convinced to schedule recess prior to lunch through research and awareness, observation of children in the cafeteria, student preference, and suggestion. Teachers thought that administrators would be convinced through research, observation of students' improved behavior and nutritional intake, communication of nutrition needs, and models of success. Parents thought principals could be convinced to schedule recess prior to lunch through research, awareness, and parental requests.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATIONS
Results of this study provide useful information on barriers likely to be encountered when advocating for the implementation and promotion of recess prior to lunch in elementary schools. Results of this research cannot be generalized, as the purpose of the study was to explore the topic of the barriers to recess placement prior to lunch. Another limitation of the study was that there were only three school districts chosen, representing three USDA regions. The participants from Maine reported more winter weather concerns than the participants from Colorado and Kentucky. Although it is possible that results would have varied if different states in other USDA regions were used for the study, focus group research typically includes three or four groups with a particular audience (Krueger & Casey, 2000). These focus group discussions yielded consistent patterns among various groups.
Participants provided rich discussion related to convincing school administrators about recess placement, important topics to consider, and the recourse for implementing recess prior to lunch. Overall, focus group participants felt the most important topics discussed were student learning and behavior, nutrition, scheduling, hand washing, operational procedures, and timing of lunch. The most important topics for school administrators were student learning and hand washing, while school nutrition personnel focused on nutrition, hand washing, scheduling, and operational procedures. Teachers highlighted nutrition and logistical concerns and parents emphasized behavior, nutrition and learning, and timing of lunch.
These results can be used to design educational resources and training programs for school personnel and parents. The benefits of scheduling recess prior to lunch need to be explained and solutions to the barriers explored and provided. School personnel need to be made aware of successful model programs that reflect the size and other attributes of their district. The schedules for the lunch program, academic activities, and recess could be described so school administrators could draw upon them as templates to design their own plan. Sites that use peer conflict management within the dining room could be used as demonstration projects to show improved utilization of lunch period time for behavior control rather than classroom time. Training materials and inservice videos demonstrating such programs, plans for easy hand washing, and strategies for successful playground management may be developed. Programs also need to be conducted to assist all stakeholders in understanding nutrition, the school lunch program, and the importance of students eating a complete lunch.
More research of recess prior to lunch is needed to validate these results. To convince school administrators to schedule recess prior to lunch, focus group participants recommended research studies that demonstrate that students' readiness for afternoon classes is better when recess is scheduled prior to lunch. Financial research would be beneficial to assess the cost of supervision changes. Further studies should be conducted to ascertain the effects scheduling recess prior to lunch has on afternoon student learning in the classroom, as well as on plate waste, behavior outcomes, and supervision activities. Similarly, pre- and post- studies of schools that change from post-lunch recess to pre-lunch recess should be conducted to determine if changes in plate waste, behavior in the afternoon, supervision, costs, nutritional intake, and learning ability change. The results of this qualitative study provide useful information to school personnel, parents, and state agency personnel.
The authors wish to thank the school district personnel who hosted the focus group meetings, as well as and the school personnel and parents who participated. This research has been produced with support of the National Food Service Management Institute, Applied Research Division at The University of Southern Mississippi. Funding for the Institute has been provided with federal funds from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. The contents of this research do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The University of Mississippi or the USDA, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
Getlinger, M.J., Laughlin, C.V.T., Bell, E., Akre, C., & Arjmandi B.H. (1996). Food waste is reduced when elementary-school children have recess before lunch. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96(9), 906-908.
Krueger, R.A., & Casey, M.A. (2000). Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Read, M.H., & Moosburner, N. (1985). The scheduling of recess and the effect on plate waste at the elementary school level. School Food Service Research Review, 9(1), 40-44.
Ruppenthal, B., & Hogue, W. (1977). Playground and plate waste. School Food Service Journal, 31, 66-70.
Smith, T.R. (1980). Play first, eat last! School Food Service Journal, 34(10), 54-55.
Wechsler, H., Brener, N., Kuester, S., & Miller, C. (2001). Food service and foods and beverages available at school: Results from the school health policies and programs study 2000. The Journal of School Health, 71(7), 313-324.
Rainville is professor of Human Nutrition and Dietetics for the School of Health Sciences at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI. Wolf is associate professor of Medical Dietetics at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. Carr is director of Applied Research for the National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, MS.