The Importance of School Lunchtimes

By Dan Rees-Jones
The school lunchtime experience can evoke many memories for all of us but what impact does it have on children today? Rather than rely on my rather rusty, rose tinted memories I decided to do some action research and went straight to the source.  My son kindly agreed to be interviewed about what the school lunchtime experience means for him (on the way to school)! He is eight years old, in Year 3 in a large inner city primary school in Bristol. 

On school dinners.....
"Sometimes they are really nice and sometimes they are yukey"

On the dining experience.......
"We eat in what is like a large classroom with no carpets, I sit where I want. I don’t like the fact that teachers tell you to hurry up with your lunch.  They do that a lot, they say eat a bit quicker."

On playing
"Playtime is more important than school dinners."

On lunchtime staff
"They are not teachers, or supply teachers, but are mostly there for lunchtime .  I don’t know their names, they’re kind of OK."

Out of 10
"I would basically split it up. So playtime is probably a 10 out of 10. Eating probably a 7 out of 10."

Interview with Chip on School Lunchtimes

As this interview discovers, lunchtimes are complex and multi-faceted things that amass to the most unstructured part of a child's day at school.  This in turn can effect their physical and emotional health and well-being.   In short if children return to class having had a positive dining experience and an enjoyable playtime they are much more likely to do well in the school environment, but are schools maximizing on this critical part of the day?

Just last week I read that the Department for Education (DfE) is inviting bidders for multi million pound contracts to offer mental health training in more than 200 schools. Eight year old children will be given lessons on happiness and teenagers will be instructed on combating anxiety and suicidal thoughts under government projects due to be trialed.

Children spend on average 20% of their school day at school lunchtimes which over seven years equates to 1.4 years which is a long time! Research has shown that this can have a massive impact on
  • Learning & understanding
  • Happiness, health and well-being,
  • Understanding about healthy eating and good food habits
In 2014 the government made a direct action to support this notion and introduced the free school meals initiative.  The findings from the pilot study showed:

  • Students were found to be on average 2 months ahead of their peers elsewhere
  • Around 2% more children reached target levels in Maths and English at Key Stage 1; while at Key Stage 2 the impact on achievement of between 3% and 5% was a bigger improvement than the 3.6% boost that followed the introduction of a compulsory literacy hour in 1998.
  • Academic improvements were most marked among children from less affluent families
  • There was a 23% increase in the number of children eating vegetables at lunch and an 18% drop in those eating crisps

This research opened the debate for the importance of food in schools and that it can change habits and mind sets.  However it findings and outcomes focused exclusively on academic attainment and obesity, ignoring the impact lunchtimes can on children’s emotional health and well-being which can be argued to be of equal importance.

HENRY the charity aims to give children a healthy start in life states:

  • The rise in obesity, particularly child obesity, poses a serious public health challenge. It has been predicted that if current trends continue over half of the UK adult population could be obese by 2050. The Foresight Report (2007) said that unless we do something now to tackle child obesity and help people live healthier lives then by 2050:
  • treatment for people who are above a healthy weight will cost the UK economy £50 billion a year; two-thirds of children in the UK will be above a healthy weight.
  • Child obesity tracks into adulthood – at least 70% of obese children will go on to become obese adults.
  • Obese children are at greater risk of serious long-term health problems, including cardiovascular problems and Type 2 diabetes. Early signs of fatty liver disease and arteriosclerosis, previously unheard of in children, are now being seen in childhood.
  • The emotional consequences of obesity in childhood can be severe and long-lasting, including bullying, low self-esteem and social exclusion.
Obesity and attainment are definite key factors in the lunchtime equation but they do not make up the complete picture.  The Childrens Food Trust created this booklet "A fresh Look at The School Meal Experience"  which can help to overcome issues schools may face, when trying to improve the experience.

The benefits of investing in improving the lunchtime experience are numerous and include:
Encourages positive, social behaviour among students.
Happier and calmer population of children and young people.
Shown from research undertaken by the Childrens Food Trust that an improved meal experience can lead to better behaviour in the classroom after lunch.
Makes a positive contribution to health and Healthy Schools status.
Support increased take-up of Free School Meals.
Make a significant contribution to your well-being self-evaluation for review by Ofsted.
Improve communication skills through opportunities to interact with others.
Increase your take-up, which can mean more money is available to be spent on improving the standard of meals and the overall school meal service.

Within this informative booklet there are case studies that demonstrate the impact, small changes can have on the experience children have during lunchtimes. However these are still mainly centered around the dining experience and there is little or no cross over into what is happening within the playground.

In 2012 Director of Public Health in Bath and NorthEast Somerset launched an award that enabled nurseries, children’s centres, schools, colleges, and other settings to identify their own health priorities and take actions that will promote physical and mental health and well-being amongst children, families and communities. 

Scrapstore Play Services have been working in partnership with B&NES Council Director of Public Health Award to develop the Eat Play Learn training programme, which supports school lunchtimes holistically, aiming to develop positive play and dining experiences for all children and staff, bringing about positive changes to practice. There are six training elements which look at:

A positive dining experience
The importance of children eating well, fostering healthy eating habits, creating a positive dining experience, exploring what makes a great lunchtime experience.

Getting to grips with play!
The importance and benefits of play, Playwork Principles, the play cycle, building positive relationships, the importance of teamwork and the role of the playworker.

Exploring tools for playwork
Supporting play, positive intervention techniques and conflict resolution. Understanding the role of risk in play, how to mange it using risk benefit assessment, and supporting children to manage risk.

Outdoor play environment
What makes a good play environment, assessing the environment, loose parts play, how to improve the play offer and what stops play.

Wet Play - tackling the issues
Review current wet play provision, what stops children playing outside in the rain, how to increase choices and freedom inside, planning for wet weather.

Reflection -  assessing the journey so far
The importance of reflection, reviewing the action plans and changes, what’s working well, what can be improved, problem solving and evaluation of the process.

"The Eat Play Learn training has been a big success at Newbridge. The lunchtime staff, as well as members of the Senior Leadership Team, were allowed the time and space to discuss the children’s lunchtime experiences. Through excellent training opportunities children now benefit from a wider range of play opportunities and a better dining experiences. What has been particularly useful is the change in mindset where staff have more of a “Give it a go” outlook on trying new things. In addition the SMSA team now have regular meetings which allows the time to raise issues and address them, as well as discuss and try out new ideas so that as a school we are continually developing and improving what we offer our children."

Kris Hancock Head at Newbridge Primary School

Scrapstore Play Services have been working with schools and early years settings all over the UK since 2007 delivering play training, research and consultancy advocating and supporting the development of play in schools.  If you would like to find out more about creating better playtimes and Eat Play Learn please phone us on 0117 9143002

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