Why should children learn chess? Learn about the benefits of the ‘gift of chess,’ with Hari Neocleous.

As educators, we sometimes think of our students becoming adults of the future. Why might they remember us? How did we prepare them for the world? How have we helped shape these mini human beings? Did we help them find their path? Chess is a gift for my students. It’s a game that they will keep with them forever. The gift of chess however is not only the game being played but the life skills learnt that go beyond the board. Chess is a toolkit of learning and life skills.

5 reasons children should learn chess

Strategy and problem solving

In chess, children develop problem solving skills, practice planning ahead and decision making. They consider questions such as ‘How will I open the game?’ ‘How can I control the centre?’ How can I attack and defend?’ They learn to concentrate and think deeply. Chess develops memory skills. The experts of the chess world learn to play by memorising patterns and learn to think multiple steps ahead. Think ‘Queen’s Gambit’ but don’t let this put you off! Not everyone can play like this, and I make it clear that many of these players dedicate every hour of the day and night to studying. I sometimes think that running away, living in a cave and dedicating my life to studying chess is the only way I could play competitively. (I love my family by the way, but I often return to this idea!)

Chess teaches children how to be patient and persevere. There are also many challenging concepts, for example, stalemate, en passant and visualising several moves ahead. I’m constantly pushing children to that next level. Chess is the ultimate strategic game, where children analayse throughout – the pieces they have and the lessons they’ve learnt all come into play. It is amazing to see them develop an analytical mind through the chess board.

Maths

‘Miss, this chess lesson is very mathsy’

There are the obvious links – the patterned chessboard, the squares, co-ordinates, the point value of the pieces, the diagonal, horizontal and vertical lines. Last week, we explored rotational symmetry and I asked the children questions such as ‘How many moves can the knight make from the edge?’ ‘What about from the centre?’ I want children to make connections themselves. I love seeing children’s fingers making L shapes in the air or with their heads nodding across and up as they figure out the knight’s moves. These are the first steps in visualisation skills, and I praise them for it. We also talk about being systematic, recording, exploring possibilities and trial and improvement.

Learning from failure

You learn to control emotions in chess. There are children who cannot cope with losing. Defeat is too much. I have to be prepared for tears and aggression. So, as they’re playing, I’m scanning the room. I look at body language. Players who have both hands on the board causes issues, players who play too quickly can also be tricky. I intervene and we discuss honesty, fair play and chess etiquette. When children lose again, I ask them to find the moment it went wrong, and see if they knew it at the time, we talk about how to improve and what they can learn from the way their partner played. Our children have to cope with failure and not see it as a negative. It’s about the process and not always about winning

Making mistakes is where the deepest learning takes place. Chess can be transformative. It can help shape attitudes and behaviour.

Communication and social skills

Chess is a game where there is a social connection. Online games are great but there’s nothing like playing across the board. You feel enjoyment, you smile, you help each other and connect and develop communication skills – listening, responding, agreeing, disagreeing. We also spend time on new vocabulary. For example, a ‘pawn promotion’ is when a pawn reaches the other side and is promoted to a higher value piece. We study the word ‘promotion’ with pictures to help develop understanding, linking it to a teacher promoting reading, a football team being promoted to the next league, or a job promotion. We have a whole bank of fun tasks to retrieve previous learning and promote discussion. Learning through mini games is a great way to explore ideas in context and allow children to make connections with concepts.

Metacognition

The final area chess can develop is meta-cognition. I wonder if it’s the lock or the lid on the toolkit. Metacognition is thinking about thinking and self-awareness is key. ‘What skills do we have in our learning tool kit?’ ‘What am I good at?’ ‘Which learning behaviours have helped me?’ ‘Where do I need to improve?’ Some children go on to self-study. It is so rewarding for me when the children go home, watch chess videos, read chess books, play with their siblings.

How to create the magic

The magic of chess doesn’t just happen. You develop the children’s critical thinking skills through carefully planned lessons. To get the full benefits, you need the right teacher. A lunch club with a volunteer is great too. The lunchtime chess club is a safe space for the lost child. It gives that child confidence, a place to make friends and a new positive label: ‘I play chess.’ I’ve often had an open-door lunch club, where I have taught the children across the board. I would assess their play and move them on. My last team went on to win an Enfield tournament! No formal lessons. No outside tutors. No after school club. They learnt to play reactively like I did, using instinct. I won’t ever forget that tournament and the tension of the last round. They held in every emotion and when we got outside, we screamed with joy! We were the underdogs. There were some serious behaviour needs but, in the end, we did it. We won many games, drew some and defended like crazy in the final round.

As a year 6 maths teacher, all I could offer was a lunch club. I’ve seen wonderful tutors from the charity Chess in Schools who come in and teach for the year. I’ve been on several courses over the years from ChessPlus, who offer high quality courses for teachers. I’ve been to tournaments and chess events. I’ve done a girls’ chess project. I currently run an after-school chess club and on Fridays, I’m teaching chess within the school day with year 4, 5 and 6. I love it! My Maths buddy and I have developed lessons based on the Chess in Schools curriculum adding our Maths Leader’s magic touch.

Cross-curricular opportunities

Chess can also be cross-curricular. Some of my favourites are finding out the king has no point value or that there wasn’t always a queen in chess. The queen was originally a prime minister! I have ‘wow’ moments, followed by children telling me that women didn’t have ‘the same roles or equal rights then.’ Great ideas from my year 4 classes. We make links to history, geography, languages, art, philosophy, film and famous players

Hard work pays off

You can hear a pin drop when the children begin their game of chess; they are completely engrossed. That intense atmosphere is mixed with a feeling of success. A class full of critical thinkers lost in thought. It’s powerful because they see their hard work has paid off. This is a generation where things happen instantly. We must remind them that some good things take time and effort. There are different ways to bring chess into your school and different children will benefit in different ways.

I would love more schools to play chess. And you’re welcome to come and watch me teach in my fabulous school in Tottenham, North London. Chess is a mind sport worth investing in. It does all of the above with a sprinkle of kindness.

Give them the gift of chess. It’s the perfect time.

Author

  • Hari Neocleous

    Hari is a primary maths SEN teacher who has over twenty years of experience teaching in London schools. Hari is also a primary school chess teacher, ‘Curious Maths’ teacher and LogiqBoard teacher. She is the maths column writer for Cherubs Family Magazine.
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