This post was written by a parent with two students in the Seattle Public School system:


Turns out the personal really is political – at least for me. Two seemingly small, unrelated changes at my child’s school had a huge impact on my family, making me a believer in the importance of lunch and recess.

First, our school went from two cafeteria workers to one. This change resulted in my child  spending most of lunch standing in line waiting to be served. Once lunch was in hand, there wasn’t enough time to eat before it was time to clean up and go outside for recess.

Second, my child began to miss recess on a semi-regular basis. Some days it was because math had run long. Other days, recess was missed in order to finish incomplete nightly math homework. (Homework could be a subject of a whole other blog post.)

By the end of the school day, my child was cranky and frustrated. And so was I.

So, why does lunch and recess matter?

Let’s start with lunch.

Kids who are hungry have difficulty focusing and learning. Add to that the growing pressure for kids to perform well on standardized tests (a third graders in SPS spends 13.5 hours/year taking standardized tests) and it’s not difficult to predict a poor outcome.

Long lines punish kids who need lunch the most. For some children, school is where they have their best meals. Long lines and shorter lunch periods keep these kids from getting the nutrition they need to be successful students.

Now recess.

Recess is an important part of learning. Movement facilitates brain development in ways classroom instruction can’t. Think of the playground as a large chaotic, learning laboratory.

Children need to move their bodies. They also need the opportunity to participate in unstructured play; figure out how to join a group, settle a dispute, or engage in imaginative play.

Sometimes kids just need an opportunity to push the mental reset button. If a situation or behavior isn’t working in the classroom, please don’t withhold recess as a punishment. Give children the chance to run around and reset their behavior. Kids don’t respond to the same incentives as adults do, expecting them to is doomed to fail.

How did we get here?

Obviously, shorter lunch periods and less recess are the result of multiple causes. What isn’t helping is the lack of ample funding from the state, coupled with less school funding at the federal level. Add to this a top down push for more testing/academic achievement, the additional testing based on the Common Core Standards and a surge in student enrollment. It’s apparent there are no easy answers.

What can we do?

Talk to other parents. Share your stories and ideas. Join the Lunch and Recess Matters Facebook group. Start your own school based Lunch and Recess Matters group. Organizing takes time and patience, but there is power and voice in numbers.

Change the conversation.

Let’s rethink how lunch and recess are structured. Maybe flip the schedule so recess is first, followed by lunch. Studies have shown this to be an effective way to get kids to eat their lunch. Best of all, this requires no extra funding.

Maybe it’s time to fund recess monitors and cafeteria workers. Saving money by running a bare bones staff, may result in a short term financial gain, but it has widespread secondary effects. Are they worth it?

Let’s also begin to talk about the amount of standardized testing that our kids are having to endure which cuts into other more healthy activities.

Finally, recess needs to be redefined as a student need and a right.

Let’s agree that withholding recess for minor classroom infractions isn’t the answer. Also, let’s recognize recess as an essential part of learning. It shouldn’t be used as flex time for squeezing in extra instructional and testing time or having kids make up incomplete homework.

Carolyn Leith