Behaviour & Emotions

How to talk about: Surviving lunchtime at school

Parenting Place School Lunchtime

It’s been a while since I wandered aimlessly around a school playground at lunchtime, so I asked my kids to shed some light on the scene.

What tips have you got for helping kids cope with lunchtime at school?

Their responses were mixed and largely unhelpful.

  1. Just go up to a kid and say, “Want some lollies?”
  2. What’s the big deal? It's just lunchtime. Eat your food and go play.
  3. Just be a loner.

Clearly this is a conversation worth having! For two reasons:

  1. You want your kids to enjoy lunchtime
  2. You want your kids to help other kids enjoy lunchtime.

Like any tricky topic, the aim is to guide our kids to think of good ideas for themselves, not simply prescribe them with a six-steps-to-success survival plan. Equipping our kids with both practical and emotional tools to make the sixty-or-so minutes between bells more enjoyable for everyone is a great goal.

Want some lollies?

Since it’s probably breaking school rules nationwide, we can rule out free candy as an effective friend-making strategy. But on the topic of nutrition, it’s worth having a chat with your kids about what food they like to eat at school and how you can together pack a healthy lunchbox.

Quantity is also important – too much food in the box and your child can be left behind while all their friends run off to play (depending on lunchbox monitoring policy), not enough food and your child may run out of energy. Most schools have a ‘no sharing’ policy to slow the spread of germs, so that’s also something to chat about.

Since it’s probably breaking school rules nationwide, we can rule out free candy as an effective friend-making strategy.

What’s the big deal?

As one of my daughters so graciously pointed out, for many kids lunchtime isn’t a problem. Kids who are in settled friendships (although there are no long-term guarantees there – but that’s a topic for another day!), kids at the top of the latest fad leader-board and kids who have a favourite corner of the library and a reading list to last all year won’t be daunted by that ominous hour where students roam free and teachers retreat to the staff room. However, the lack of structure, the vastness of the grounds and the crowd of unfamiliar faces can be intimidating for others.

It’s important our kids have tools to cope with potential pitfalls – like knowing how to identify the duty teacher and find the bathrooms and sickbay. Chat about the school’s boundaries and policies on free play. Instead of overloading your kids with information, ask them questions about their school to ascertain what they already know of how things work – this could also help foster a sense of belonging for your child.

Loner alert

Much of a child’s anxiety about lunchtime relates to friendship – where are my friends/have I got any friends/how do I make friends.

While schools are working hard to counter bullying, we can help by keeping the conversation flowing at home with regards to relationships. And of prime importance, we can help teach our kids empathy. While some children are happy with individual pursuits, for others loneliness can be crippling. As parents, we can encourage our children to consider what having no friends or being left out of a game feels like so they can then relate to others in that position and become part of the solution.

Potential conversation starters in this regard include:

  • Did everyone have someone to play with today?
  • What games are popular at school at the moment?
  • Does everyone join in?
  • What happens if the game has already started and someone asks to join in?

Playground icebreakers can be awkward, especially if you are the new kid or perhaps your only friend is away that day. “Can I play?” – three simple words that can be surprisingly difficult to say out loud. Some practice might help.

Friendly responses can be practised too: “Sure, you can play!”

It’s not always that simple though. Some more creative thinking may be required: “The teams for this game are full but let’s see if we can form another team.”

Idealistic perhaps, but absolutely worth a try when inclusion is on the line.

The topic of making friends is huge, but with regards to lunchtime stress, the issue really boils down to having something to do and, ideally, someone to do it with. When we chat about activity options with our kids, while gently reminding (and re-reminding!) them about the importance of looking after others, we’re laying a foundation upon which our kids can build social skills – in ways that reflect their unique personalities.

Catching up in the car

While car journeys are a great place to bring up tricky topics, don’t expect too much in the way of meaningful conversation on the way home from school. Post 3pm, kids are tired, hungry and relieved to be back in their ‘safe zone’ after navigating an array of emotions and expectations all day. They probably just want to zone out for a bit, so if you ask them what they did at lunchtime, be prepared for a monosyllabic response. “Nothing” would be a fair representation of all answers surveyed. “I ate my lunch,” if your child is particularly articulate.

However, the drive to school has more potential. Apprehension levels may be building as the school gates draw closer, so keep it light. Perhaps just offer some suggestions or ‘think aloud’, believing that your child is filing away all your brilliant ideas, ever grateful for the way your invaluable wisdom makes their life so much more manageable.

Ideas could sound something like:

  • “I wonder if they need librarians to volunteer at lunchtime.”
  • “Maybe kapa haka practice will start this week.”
  • “Does your school have peer mediators? You’d be great at that.”
  • “I see the cricket pitch has been mown. That new kid from Auckland might be into cricket.”
  • “Those trees look like a great shady spot to hang out with friends or read a book.”

And a final tip for the grown-ups: what’s in a kid’s lunchbox can really make or break their day. No pressure! In researching this article, my 10-year-old momentarily went into trauma recalling that her first-day-of-school sandwiches contained luncheon sausage and tomato sauce. “But I thought you really liked luncheon sausage?” I said in defence. “Yeah, but not with tomato sauce!” Oh, okay then. Which leads me to my final, final tip: As soon as they’re able, coach those kiddos to make their own school lunches.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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