So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambit – Is Chess Good for Schools?

Okay, if you have been reading my blog, or even just read the title block, you know where I am going to come down on this.  I teach chess in my son’s grade school.  Nonetheless, there are issues with teaching chess in schools:  promoting an elitist attitude, scaring kids off, and finding adults to help!  At the same time, there are alternative games that encourage some of the same thought processes. 

First of all, chess can be elitist.  There will be kids who join to prove they are smarter than everyone else.  Worse, there are parents who push their children into chess to prove to the world that their kid (and by extension, the parent) is smarter than everyone else.  I have been to conferences for gifted children where chess clubs were promoted specifically for gifted children, and I have mixed emotions about it.  Chess is a great way to provide more challenge to gifted child.  It doesn’t focus too much on one academic area, and doesn’t feel like “school work”.  Lastly, because chess is “the game of kings”, there are behavioral expectations that go with the game, including playing quietly and with self-control and good sportsmanship.  I worry about gifted children growing up to be “egg-heads” and lacking the softer, interpersonal skills that are so necessary for success at work and in relationships.*  I don’t want to see chess become the exclusive territory of the gifted, however.  “Normal” kids need fun mental challenges that help nurture the thinking processes and teach personal skills too.

Yet, so often (and maybe because of those gifted programs) those “normal” kids are scared by chess, feeling if they are not “smart enough” to play the game.  I frequently hear adults say this very thing; we should expect their kids to feel the same way.  This just isn’t the case.  Anyone can learn the game.  The child, or adult for that matter, may never be the next Bobby Fischer or Judit Polgár, but can love the game and get something out of it nonetheless.  I am a great example of this; I love chess and yet, with a rating in the low 1400’s, I am only a class C player.  I read chess books when I have the time, but honestly I don’t expect to even break into the B class at 1600.  Having fun is far more important than winning or even being a great player.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t game at all!)

Lastly, finding the adults who want to participate is difficult.  In the public school system for Columbus, OH, there has been an employee specifically hired by the district to provide those schools with a chess program.  That is by far the exception to the rule, and that completely leaves out private schools and small districts.  It’s sometimes tough to find adults to teach the gifted kids.  Finding someone to deal with the rest of the school population can be nearly impossible.

Nine Men's Morris - Promo image at Amazon
If chess proves to be too much of a problem, what can be done?  Don’t give up; start a gaming club instead.  There are plenty of classic, quick and relatively inexpensive games that are suited to teaching problem solving skills and sportsmanship.  A short list of abstract games would include Reversi(Othello), Mancala, Backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris.  These games do not need a teacher/coach who is familiar with the game.  The rules are more simple and straightforward and the strategy not as deep as chess.  

There actually are some advantages over a chess club with this approach.  First of all, younger kids can be included with games like checkers.  There are a lot of games that are variants on checkers, both more and less difficult.  As the kids get older, they could be introduced to pool checkers, which someday I would like to learn.  Furthermore, the list isn’t limited to just abstracts.  My wife has had great success playing 20 Questions for Kids as a team game with the after school program.  There are teachers running gaming clubs at schools who are playing some of the other types of games I discuss in this blog.

Games are so important to intellectual and social development that I think all kids should learn to play them.  If your school doesn’t have a chess program, consider a gaming program.  If there isn’t someone to start it, why not you?  If none of that is available, at least play at home.  If you keep playing and reading, I promise to keep writing!

It’s Your Move!

Related Posts:

Related Links:
Othello – Board Game Geek entry
Mancala – Board Game Geek entry
Nine Men’s Morris – Board Game Geek entry
Backgammon– Board Game Geek entry
20 Questions for Kids – Board Game Geek entry
Judit Polgár – Wikipedia entry
Bobby Fischer – Wikipedia entry

* A few years ago, it was suggested to my wife and me that our son might be gifted.  I am not sure how that actually is measured, but I do know that he is a straight-A student.  Our concern isn’t that he is provided an advanced curriculum to further advance his intellect, though that would be nice.  Our main concern is that he learns empathy, compassion, teamwork and leadership, growing up to be a productive citizen and a faith-filled man.  That’s our job as a parent.  In my engineering career, I have met lots of incredibly smart people who couldn’t lead hungry Boy Scouts to lunch, and can never see when someone is hurting.  That’s not who we are raising Daniel to be.

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