For many years now, I’ve been at schools that have two nutrition breaks instead of a recess/lunch model. In the nutrition break system, we have two 40-minute breaks during the day: with 20 minutes outside playing and 20 minutes inside eating. I remember when I first learned about nutrition breaks. It seemed strange to have staff and students that may be eating their lunch at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon, instead of the more typical noon hour. That said, I understood the thinking behind a system that sees the value that outdoor play and full bellies can have to student achievement. Today though, I started to think about outdoor learning, mental health and well-being, and what we can do differently.
Maybe it’s my move to Kindergarten and being in an environment where outdoor learning is such an essential component of the Program Document that has me thinking differently. We start our day outside, and we’re usually out for close to an hour in the morning and some additional time in the afternoon: depending on the weather, student needs, and program interests. While we have a beautiful outdoor classroom in addition to a forest nearby, we primarily let the students take the lead in this outdoor time. And if we really watch and listen to the children, there are so many connections to math skills, language learning, social skills, and problem solving. Rain or shine, this outdoor learning time is usually my favourite time of the day, and I continue to be amazed with what happens in these special outdoor spaces. For the first time ever in my 15 years of teaching, our class does not follow the nutrition break schedule. We have a snack table (where children rotate and eat throughout the day when they’re hungry — they need to eat twice), and we go outside at our own time and primarily dictated by what the children need. Bells no longer run our lives … and I love this!
Twice a week though, I have two, 40-minute nutrition break duties, and I leave our classroom to go and supervise the primary students. Today was one of those days. About three minutes before the bell rang today, a Grade 1 student came up to me. She said, “Miss Dunsiger, can you help us with our snowman? We can’t stack the balls.” She indicated that she even worked with another student and “the ball is so heavy that even the two of us can’t do it.” Another child was walking with me at this point, so the three of us walked over to this snowman. She was right: this was a huge, heavy ball! I explained that I couldn’t pick it up either, but maybe a few more students could help her out. The child that was walking with me offered to help, and another child that was walking by, came over to assist. They struggled. They persevered. They tried different ways to surround the snowball so that they could pick it up safely. And just as the two balls were about to meet, the recess bell rang. I wanted to cry!
I said that maybe they could come out tomorrow and finish it. One child reminded me that the weather is supposed to warm up and the snow will likely melt. I said maybe they could finish it after. This is when the child that first approached me for help commented, “But it’s already the second break. We just about had it, and now we have no more time.” She was right! To think that all of this problem solving, team work, and perseverance ended with an incomplete snowman, breaks my heart.
Just as I’m struggling with these thoughts, I head over to the lines to let the children go in and get ready for eating time. The students are so loud. They’re still trying to play in the snow. Some children are running around and chasing each other. There are problems with peers, and my only desire at this point is to get everybody inside. The problems spill into the hallways though, and I spend the rest of the nutrition break helping solve them. As I help calm tempers and resolve disputes, I can’t help but think about Stuart Shanker and self-regulation: Why this child? Why now? My thinking led to these questions that I feel could all be at play here.
- Outdoor play can help children self-regulate, but does 20 minutes provide enough time for them to truly calm down?
- The new Kindergarten Program Document talks a lot about the “flow of the day,” and the importance of “minimizing transitions.” These are great considerations for all grades. How many additional transitions happen during the day though because of these two, 20 minute breaks?
- Getting dressed and undressed in crowded hallways with additional outdoor clothing (i.e., boots, snowpants, etc.) can be stressful, and does this stress cause the kinds of problems that happened today?
With the different duty requirements, I know that nutrition breaks are hard to change, but I just can’t get past my experience today. My head is full of questions.
- Outdoor learning time is valuable beyond Kindergarten, so how do we increase these times for all grades?
- How might we minimize transitions, and what value might this have for all learners?
- What does your school do? What are the benefits for kids?
It would be great if we could share our stories. Looking ahead, I’d just love for an option where all children could “finish their snowmen.”