OCTOBER 21, 2019 — Would increasing the amount of time kids get to eat lunch mean they eat more, healthy foods and aren’t hungry in the afternoon?
Would increasing the amount of recess time improve their behavior in the classroom?
And is it possible for Anchorage elementary schools to do both — increase lunch and recess time — and still find ways to meet other requirements in a school day?
This school year, the Anchorage School District will be evaluating how a new pilot project to increase lunch and recess time in participating elementary schools affects everything from students’ hunger and stress levels, to teachers’ assessment of behavior in their classrooms, to parents’ perceptions of their children’s behavior and hunger levels after school.
"The Anchorage School District and the parent organization ASD60 created the Wellness Initiative pilot program to look at the benefits and challenges of increased physical activity throughout the day and increased time for students to eat,” said Anchorage School District Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock. “We have 21 elementary schools in the voluntary pilot program that will collect data throughout the year.”
Starting the Wellness Initiative in Anchorage
Starting this fall, the 21 schools participating in this pilot began increasing the total amount of time for lunch and recess each day. The pilot, called the Wellness Initiative, began after a group of local parents raised concerns during recent years that young kids in Anchorage schools did not have enough time to eat a healthy lunch, nor be physically active during the school day. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend children get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day for the best health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend children have at least 20 minutes to be seated and eating lunch at school.
“We have to make time for their health and well-being,” said Carey Carpenter, an Anchorage mother of two elementary school students. Carpenter helped start the parent organization called ASD60 — ASD for Anchorage School District and 60 for the total minutes these parents want allotted for lunch and recess every day.
About one-third of ASD elementary schools voluntarily signed up for the pilot this school year, agreeing to provide the following every day:
- 10 minutes seated time for breakfast (if the school provides a breakfast)
- 20 minutes to be seated and eating lunch
- 54 minutes of physical activity (90% of the national recommendation), which includes 30 minutes of recess and a combination of physical education, school-wide activities and in-classroom activities
Carpenter said the ASD60 parents wanted more lunch and recess for all elementary students, but were particularly concerned about the effect brief lunch and recess periods had on Anchorage’s most vulnerable children. For children in families who earn low incomes, breakfast and lunch offered through school may provide the majority of their calories every day. If these children don’t have enough time to eat, they miss out on most of their nutrition that day.
“We’re really hurting the kids that need it the most,” Carpenter said.
The same issue applies to time for physical activity, she said. Families with lower incomes may not have the ability or funds to sign up their children for afterschool sports clubs or leagues. That may limit their children’s activity to only what they get at school during the day.
Increasing time during the school day for eating lunch and being active may lead to improved performance in the classroom. The CDC published a report called “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.” This review of research showed a link between physical activity and improved grades and academic achievement. It stated that physical activity can improve attention, concentration and behavior in the classroom.
“There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the CDC report stated.
Evaluating the pilot
News about this pilot project reached across the country last spring, sparking the interest of Harvard professor, Dr. Juliana Cohen. Cohen’s area of expertise is studying school-based interventions related to lunch and recess time. When she saw a Google alert about the ASD pilot, she reached out to the district to see if she could help evaluate it.
“I’m volunteering my time for this, just because I think this is just a wonderful opportunity to monitor the effectiveness of this type of intervention,” said Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and assistant professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
Mike Scott, assistant principal at Mears Middle School in Anchorage, is leading ASD’s evaluation. Cohen is working with ASD to study the pilot in several different ways.
The evaluation will help ASD decide whether or not to adopt longer recess and lunch periods for all Anchorage elementary schools during future school years. There are several planned components for the evaluation. One involves teachers at participating and nonparticipating elementary schools. These teachers will voluntarily fill out a survey to assess children’s behavior and energy levels in their classrooms. They will fill out these surveys in the fall and again in the spring, helping evaluators compare student behavior in participating versus nonparticipating schools.
Evaluators also plan to give brief, voluntary surveys to students to take after lunch and recess. The surveys ask about stress, happiness and hunger levels. Cohen said the evaluation team is looking into adding a few questions to the district’s annual parent survey that comes out during the second semester. These questions would focus on parents’ perceptions of their children’s behavior and hunger level after school.
Cohen said the final piece of evaluation would include interviews and focus groups to learn more from principals, teachers, cafeteria staff and parents. This will help examine the process of implementing the pilot: what was successful during the pilot, what didn’t work well, and what are the recommendations for improvement if the pilot continues or expands?
“Is this initiative benefiting students?” Cohen asked. “Is it something that works for this community? Is it something that should be expanded throughout the district?”
Receiving early feedback from families
The pilot just started, but some parents are reporting positive changes for their children. One Anchorage mom called the extra lunch time a “big win” for her son.
“My son is at Rabbit Creek Elementary and is loving the extra recess and lunch time,” said Hannah Stream. “It was definitely a highlight to the start of the year. Last year I believe he came home with unfinished food almost every day and often said he didn’t have time. This year, lunch has been completed every day so far and he says he has enough time.”
Jenny Fawcett said this is the first year her daughter, a third-grader at Trailside Elementary, has had enough time to eat her entire lunch.
“She has more energy in the afternoon and a more positive attitude and behavior,” Fawcett said. “The extra recess time gives her extended time to play and get her wiggles out.”
Crystal Mitchell said her daughter in sixth grade has appreciated the extra outside recess time at Ravenwood Elementary in Eagle River. Mitchell noted that the stress level has increased over the years as her daughter’s classes require more attention.
“It’s important to have a moment of clarity for kids to just step away to be kids,” Mitchell said. “It’s important for them to have consistency and the ability to have play time.”
The pilot will continue through the remainder of this school year. During the coming months, the district’s staff and partners will continue the evaluation to study how the pilot is running and look for possible impacts of more lunch and recess time. Read more about the Anchorage School District Wellness Initiative online. ASD60 also can be followed on Facebook.
Photograph courtesy of the Anchorage School District