The Snowman That Never Was: My Struggle With Nutrition Breaks

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.”


8 thoughts on “The Snowman That Never Was: My Struggle With Nutrition Breaks

  1. Aviva,

    thanks for sharing this thought! Reminds me of John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing us down and what he writes about the impact of the school bell on children’s motivation for learning. His thesis is that the repetitive ending of lessons when children are fully involved in their work is detrimental to their intrinsic motivation. Your post reminds me that in eye of the need for 21st century skills and attitudes we really need to be mindful of recognising when children show the behaviour we want them to foster and develop and make the most of it there and then. We cannot hope to develop perseverence, grit, care, kindness, cooperation, thinking, self-regulation, … in the long run, if we keep breaking them off time after time at the signal of a school bell we are taking for granted, because most of us never knew schools without them. Lets all have a very careful look at the things we take for granted, and question them deeply and regularly.

    • Thanks for your comment, Hilde! I completely agree with what you’re saying here, and I think that our Kindergarten model addresses these needs in so many ways. With two educators in the room though, we can be so much more flexible with our indoor and outdoor learning time throughout the day. I wonder what more is possible in other grades though, and how do these possibilities maybe extend outdoor time beyond nutrition breaks? These children were making a snowman yesterday, but they were doing so much more than that. Even from a math perspective, we could explore 3-D figures and what allows them to balance. How is it possible for a sphere to sit on top of a sphere? Is that always true? What are the connections to Science and structures? How could we extrapolate from this snowman building to have a better understanding of construction and structure stability? And then there are all of the learning skills that are so evident in this snowman example. I bet there are many other examples just like this too, and I’m curious to know how educators everywhere are allowing this wonderful learning to happen … even after the bell rings. How do we provide this flexibility in a structure that for supervision requirements often needs to be rigid? I’m curious to know creative ways that others have thought of and/or tried.


  2. I’m not going to lie; I probably would have let them finish the snowman if I thought they could do it in 2 minutes or less. The benefits in my mind would out-weigh the consequences, but that probably would be the wrong answer in the eyes of many.

    My afternoon group this year really struggles with transitions and I am toying with the idea of going to alternating days of subjects rather than switching subjects part way through, just to make things go more smoothly. Usually it goes social studies then art or drama or health and then gym. I would keep the gym and then alternate days for the other stuff and go 80 min blocks instead of 40 min blocks that feel like 20 after transitions. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about. I agree that we need to find ways of make the day more flexible and allowing for more flow as this is when people are at their creative best.

    (Our school does lunch and recess 11:30-12:10 and then a 40 minute recess at the end of the day. I give my kids snack times in the morning and afternoon, even though I don’t think I’m supposed to, in part because some of them need it and in part because they all tend to need a break to stretch their legs and go get their snacks. Sometimes we work and snack at the same time.)

    • Thanks for your comment, Melanie! I will admit that I was toying with the idea of letting them finish. The problem was that the snowman was in a spot that was difficult to see, and I’m out on duty alone. I didn’t think that I could safely get the other children ready to go inside and still keep an eye on the snowman creation. I thought that others might wander over there too, and then it would be challenging to see both areas. It was a struggle though.

      I do like longer blocks of learning time for all students. When I taught Grade 5, I changed our schedule so that we had half the day as language and half as math, and we integrated all of the other subject areas. The Arts truly became a vehicle for sharing thinking and learning, and we were able to dig deeper in social studies and science. Less transitions really helped students too. I’m a big believer in this! I would love to know what you end up doing.

      I like the set-up of your lunch and recess. Do you find that there are less struggles outside with a longer block outdoors? I don’t see any reason that kids can’t eat during the day (even as they’re working) if needed. If we’re hungry, it’s hard to focus. This can result in some dysregulation too. There’s value to doing what you’re doing, and even having the time for students to stretch and go get their lunches. Maybe this is a necessary transition. I would love to hear what others do too.


      • I like what you did with the grade 5s. I wish I could do that! I’m going to test out eliminating that afternoon transition over the next week and a half. I have planned out how to structure the block so that it should work I think, but you never know for sure until you actually try it with the students. I will keep you posted on how it goes. I imagine by the end of next week, there may be a blog post in there.

        I was initially bummed by the lack of balanced day because I liked eating twice throughout, but it turns out that I like that 40 minutes to unwind and process my day at the end even more. (All my duties come during the lunch/recess first break.) It does work nicely for school teams who can start “after school” practices during the recess so they don’t go as late, but I don’t think it has eliminated any problems on the yard (although I will admit that this is speculation based on third party information).

        • Thanks for the reply, Melanie! I hope that your change goes well. Please keep me posted. If you blog, I’d love to know. It sounds like you’re really considering the students and their needs, which is always so important.

          I can totally understand why you like this time at the end of the day. I know that my teaching partner and I usually spend a lot of time reflecting after school and planning ahead based on these reflections. This is such a nice time to be able to do so. Having this time built-in with the 40 minute recess is wonderful. I find it interesting that problems have not been eliminated (at least as to you knowledge). I think of Stuart Shanker’s, “why/why now” questions. I’d be curious to know why this is the case and how this might change. My head is always spinning with these questions, I think. 🙂


          • Hi Aviva,
            Today went well with the longer block… so much so that I had to write about it.


            The afternoon recess thing might be that all grades K-8 go outside at once and there are not really well defined boundaries between their yards. There are just a lot of people who have had to keep everything pent up all day and then they really let it out. This is entirely conjecture, but it’s my theory.

          • Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m going to check out your post in a minute, Melanie. I’m thrilled to hear it went well.

            Thanks for also sharing your thinking about recess. I bet space does have an impact. I wonder if there’s a way to define the boundaries differently. It’s a hard one. I love how our school has lots of room and few students. This makes a huge difference. It’s too bad that staggered recess times wouldn’t work with a bigger area for both groups of students to play.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *