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The three-part radio series No Time For Play examines how schools in the Seattle area are increasingly limiting kids' physical activity and play times. It was reported by Ann Dornfeld and edited by Carol Smith.

Seattle Kids Used To Get 95 Minutes Of Lunch And Recess

Students play double-dutch at recess at Colman School in 1971. Back then, students had an hour or more time to eat and play at school.
Seattle Public Schools Archives
Students play double-dutch at recess at Colman School in 1971. Back then, students had an hour or more time to eat and play at school.

There was a time Seattle students got 95 minutes of lunch and recess.

Most of that time was for a languid midday break that allowed plenty of time to eat and play.

A 1960 schedule from Seattle Public Schools shows that elementary students across the district got 95 minutes for lunch and recess in first through third grades. Fourth through sixth graders got 75 minutes.

Compare that to today, when students are guaranteed just 50 total minutes of lunch and recess (with evidence that many schools offer less).

Why the huge gap between 1960 and today?

For one, students used to go home for lunch. But that was changing in 1960. At the time, three-quarters of elementary students were eating lunch at school rather than going home.

"Working mothers and an attractive school lunch program have to a large degree been responsible for this change," the document says.

The large number of students staying at school for lunch and recess was causing crowding and congestion in the lunchrooms and on the playgrounds.

"Children become over-stimulated, are tired from hard play and are involved in numerous accidents,” the document says. “In the primary grades short rest periods are necessary before pupils resume their studies after lunch."

The district proposed cutting the midday break by 20 minutes. That would allow younger and older students to eat and play at different times. "There will be fewer accidents on the playground," the district document says.

On the list of problems the new schedule would create:

"Teachers have less time during the school day for preparation."

A survey found that many teachers and parents supported the proposed schedule change, but others had reservations. Some were concerned recesses would be too short. Others didn’t like the reduced amount of "teacher relaxation and classroom preparation."

It’s unclear whether the district implemented this proposed schedule. But other cuts ensued. Fifty-five years later, there was no longer a district-wide recess policy. By 2014, one school had no scheduled recess. Others had only 15 minutes all day. That changed earlier this month.

Following a KUOW investigation into shrinking recess time in Seattle public schools, especially in low-income schools, a coalition of parents, teachers and child development experts called for changes to the district’s recess policy.

In this summer’s contract negotiation, the Seattle Education Association teachers’ union successfully bargained a minimum of 30 minutes of recess for elementary students. (The union had originally sought 45 minutes of recess.)

Members of the local Facebook group Lunch & Recess Matter say what needs to happen now is enforcement of the district’s existing lunch policy, which mandates that kids get 20 minutes to eat.

Instead, many elementary schools budget 20 minutes or less, including the time it takes students to walk to the classroom, stand in the lunch line, find a seat and clean up after themselves. As a result, children – especially those who eat hot lunch – can’t eat more than a few bites before it’s time to head back to class.

With increasing academic pressures, a return to an hour-plus break seems unlikely. 

Year started with KUOW: 2008