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Learning is like a game of chess

May 11, 2011

I still remember the day our father walked in with a package under his arm that turned out to be a chess game. I also remember warm sunny afternoons, sitting around the coffee-table; the living room dimmed and cool. And our father patiently teaching us how to play chess.

Using chess to enhance learning

Using chess to enhance learning

He’d finally found a new way to relate to his two daughters. We’d become too old to wrestle with or play Cowboys & Indians. A game of chess was a perfect alternative. That is, until we started beating him at it. Especially my sister; she’d quickly become a very good player.

So our father, competitive as he was, would sit there sulking, while we smirked. Again a child, barely eleven years old, had beaten him at another game of chess. Ae fond memories…

Fond memories that were triggered this week by the BBC News, who featured an item on children’s education. The BBC posed the question of introducing chess to primary schools.


Chess as an educational tool

The BBC’s item centred around the charity project of Malcolm Pein —a former International Chess Master. The project, Chess in Schools & Communities, strives to engage children at a very young age in the game. The idea is moulded on how it’s done in countries like Armenia.

A recent BBC article tells how chess has been successfully embedded in the country’s culture. The article cites proponents claiming evidence to the game boosting children’s development and education. They state that a game of chess:

  1. improves test scores and reading performance;
  2. raises IQ scores and strengthen problem solving skills;
  3. enhances concentration, memory and calculation;
  4. fosters creative thinking;
  5. teaches discipline and social skills.

Pein stresses that in addition, chess is relatively cheap. Making it ideal to be issued to children in economically disadvantaged areas.

Chess in the digital era

By chance, the Dutch news also featured children and games this week. The difference being that they concentrated on youngsters becoming addicted to online gaming and possible negative consequences like seclusion and depression.

In a digital era, where we discuss such issues and whether or not to use Facebook and Twitter in the classroom; it seems off to propagate chess —a 1500 year old game— as part of the curriculum. Or as one tweeter put it:

But there are also tweeters, who like Pein, believe in the many gains of chess being taught at primary schools to young children:


As for myself, looking back I’m inclined to believe that both my sister and I benefitted from our father teaching us to play the game. I may not have incorporated all the positive skills —then again I’m a moderate player; yet I can pretty well hold my own in the analytical department.

As for my sister; she is one of the most intelligent women I know. A well-disciplined and focussed strategic thinker and very adaptive. I’ve never witnessed anyone with the ability to self-educate the way she can.

No blueprint

Should chess be taught at schools? Yes. I’m all for it. Should it be compulsory? I’m not so sure. There’s no blueprint here. Every school’s different. With its own rich or meagre resources. Every child’s different. Chess may work for some; but not for others.

When you come to think of it, learning itself is like a game of chess. Always moving; always changing. The essence is capturing the right learning strategy that fits a particular learning situation: be it school or a group of children.

What do you think? Will making chess compulsory in schools foster children’s intellectual development and improve their critical thinking skills?

(Source image used: BenJTsunami)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2011 23:37

    I neglected to mention in the former post, the image I captured was of an old cement chess table under a tree. 🙂 Now, my comment makes sense. 🙂


  2. July 23, 2011 23:35

    How interesting my discovery of this post is…

    I just wrapped up last week’s Creative Digital Photography Workshop and I included in my blog post yesterday, an abstract image I captured on the tour. I captured that image as an example for my students of in-camera blur and intriguing POV.

    And now, your very inspirational story of your childhood experience about playing chess with your father…

    Thank you for sharing. I appreciate the connection made between the game of chess and children’s development and thinking.


  3. June 26, 2011 01:24

    I think playing Chess can have that effect on children. Just as playing football can create spatial intelligence, endurance, sportmanship, social behaviour, etc. Or computer games can create fast eye-hand coordination, analytic thinking, problem solving skills,etc.
    Any activity which will be made available (or compulsory) more over another activity will create changes in neurological patterns.
    So, I think the question is not so much if chess does have an effect on changes skills and behaviour, but the debate is more whether these changes are to be preferred over other possible changes. What grounds are there to make this choice?


    • June 26, 2011 14:00

      Dear Jack,
      You’re right of course. Any activity we choose has a specific learning effect. On what grounds should we then make a choice? I think it all depends on your learning objective(s). As long as you have that clear, you can then decide what’s the best learning method.

      If I want endurance, team-building, and intercultural communication; I’ll probably go for soccer. But if I’d like to emphasise analytical and strategic thinking, chess would be my learning method of choice.

      In defence of chess, as Pein stresses, it’s relatively cheap in comparison to most other (informal) learning activities. Most importantly, I’d like to add, it can be done anywhere. And I do mean anywhere. My sister once played chess with a complete stranger she met on a flight from the Netherlands to the Antilles. He was a chess-champion back then and challenged her. She won BTW. 🙂

      Greetings, Evita


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