PLEASANTON -- Fewer sandwiches tossed half-eaten into garbage cans. Fewer squabbles on the playground. More calm afternoons in the classrooms.

These outcomes, some Pleasanton Unified School District leaders say, are the results of a lunchtime recess redesign: letting students play first and eat later.

The "play-first lunch" -- currently being used in numerous states and nearby at San Ramon's Hidden Hills Elementary School -- is gaining ground in Pleasanton, where seven of the nine district elementary schools now use the program.

"It's kind of a step away from tradition," said Rafael Cruz, principal at Valley View Elementary School, which is trying out the schedule this school year.

Frank Castro, the district's director of child nutrition services, introduced the program after speaking with other directors, visiting Hidden Hills and reading research -- particularly from Montana where it is used throughout the state -- about the benefits of the concept.

"I've always been aware of kids just rushing through lunch, throwing away food," he said. "It's been built into our culture that the kids just want to play." Alisal Elementary School was the first to use the program. It began there at the end of the 2008-09 school year, and it was decided to continue it after school officials saw benefits, such as less food waste, decreased behavioral problems and better focus among students.


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"I think it's done a lot of wonderful things for children's ability to be able to return to class calmly and concentrate a lot more," said Principal Amy Simione.

She said teachers have been universally supportive and concerns from parents have been few and far between.

At Donlon Elementary School, where the program has been in place the past few years, Principal Barbara Heisser said it gives students the opportunity to sit and take a breath, converse with other children and finish their lunches without feeling rushed, because they've already released their energy.

"I just think it's a much healthier way for kids to make sure they're eating the foods they need to be eating," she said.

For Valley View, the new schedule has been an adjustment, from shifting patterns to and from the cafeteria, to ensuring students have enough time to buy lunch on popular "pizza days." "It turned out to necessitate a lot more planning than one would think on the surface," Cruz said.

The change hasn't been unanimously supported, either. Cruz said lunch supervisors prefer the old schedule because without the "carrot" of recess, students are less agreeable about quieting down and cleaning up after themselves.

And one group of fourth-graders even presented Cruz with a petition requesting the return of after-lunch recess.

Cruz will assess opinions on the schedule switch by including questions on the parent school site council's end-of-year survey, having students take classroom votes and soliciting teacher feedback.

"The big picture is the long run," he said. "We want to do what's best for kids. If the teachers feel it's best for academic purposes, then we'll go in that direction."

For his part, Castro understands that the program isn't one size fits all. A pilot project at his child's own school in Discovery Bay did not pan out. But he hopes the Pleasanton schools will continue to work through the culture change.

"The first year has, I think, been a struggle for some because of the logistics involved," he said. "I really believe that with time that the kids will be more aware of the systems in place that are needed to make it work. Once they get conditioned, it will be a lot easier."