It’s not about Kings, Queens, and Rooks, but rather, quadrants and coordinates, thinking strategically and foreseeing consequences. It’s about lines and angles, weighing options and making decisions. Chess might just be the perfect teaching and learning tool. Since 2000, America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C) has been working with 2nd and 3rd grade students and their teachers to promote the use of chess as an educational tool. The goal of the First Move™ curriculum is to use the game of chess as a tool, to increase higher level thinking skills, advance math and reading skills, and build self-confidence.
Research shows, there is a strong correlation between learning to play chess and academic achievement. In 2000, a landmark study found that students who received chess instruction scored significantly higher on all measures of academic achievement, including math, spatial analysis, and non-verbal reasoning ability (Smith and Cage, 2000).
While studies have shown chess to have a positive impact on kids in elementary, middle and high school, AF4C targeted second and third graders as the evidence, and certainly our experience, suggests it’s the ideal age. Eight and nine year-old minds and thinking skills are developing rapidly, and chess teaches higher level thinking skills such as the ability to visualize, analyze, and think critically.
If you teach an adult to play chess, they quickly comprehend where they should and shouldn’t move pieces to capture or avoid capture. Young Kate knew the names of the pieces and how they moved, but initially moved her pieces randomly. Soon she was saying, “If I move my piece here, you could capture it, right? Then I’m not going to move there.” You can almost see the mental changes taking place.
Chess has a unique and strong brand attribute, in that it is generally perceived that playing chess and being smart are connected. This can be very positive driver for young children, who, rather than being intimidated as many adults are, embrace the notion. As children get older, a stigma, or nerd factor attaches to “being smart.” But in the second and third grade, kids want to be thought of as smart. It is also an important age for developing an attachment to school. If kids associate school and learning with fun, they will most likely develop a stronger attachment to school.
To be referred to as “the perfect teaching tool,” chess would have to do much more than be age appropriate, and it does. As our classrooms become increasingly diverse, being able to reach all children becomes increasingly challenging. Chess levels the playing field as it crosses all socio-economic boundaries. It is a universal game, with worldwide rule consistency. Age, gender, ethnic background, religious affiliation, size, shape, color, and language don’t matter when playing chess. Everyone is equal on the chessboard. Students who are English language learners find success with chess, because they don’t face language barriers on the chessboard. Principal Jeff Newport commented, “We have 34 different languages spoken at our school, and chess is now the one we have in common.”
Many schools have after-school chess clubs that create a mix of fun, competition and learning. Predominantly the members are boys. An unintended consequence of these programs is that they often leave some kids behind who are not drawn to the competitive aspect of the game. By integrating chess into the classroom, we are able to reach all children and provide them with the benefits of learning through the game of chess. These benefits include the fact that students who wouldn’t have thought to join the chess club on their own, are more apt to join after having been exposed to chess in their classroom. In Philadelphia, where 20 schools have implemented First Move™ during the school day, participation in chess club after-school increased in several schools that already had a chess club, and five schools created a new club in response to student demand.
The First Move™ curriculum was developed by a curriculum professional, and designed specifically to connect with National and State academic standards. For example, while learning about the chessboard, students are taught that each square has a name/location. You can find each square by using coordinates, a set of numbers, letters or a number and a letter, that tell you the exact location of something. On the chessboard, each square is located at the intersection of a file (vertical line) and rank (horizontal line). As they learn, students begin to talk in chess terms, i.e.” I am moving my c3 Knight to e4.” This helps their chess game, and it also meets the Washington State Standards for math (1.5.1 and 5.3.1). “Chess will never show up on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning [test]” says Kent Ferris, Lafayette Elementary School, “but the confidence, focus, and academic skills our students are gaining through becoming analytical players will pay measurable benefits in the years ahead.” Principal Michelle Hartman was concerned about her 3rd grade class because they were considered a “high-risk” group. At the end of the school year she noted, “Chess has really made a difference for these kids, and their test scores help prove it.”
In any classroom, there are disparate levels of prior knowledge on any given topic; chess is no different. Teachers find some of their students already know how to play chess. This becomes an opportunity to place those children in leadership roles as teaching assistants for their classmates. The reason isn’t clear, but in many interviews with children in the First Move™ program, they express their desire to teach others to play chess. Superintendent Reece Blincoe from Stockdale ISD reported his delight when his family gathered on the living room floor so his 3rd grade daughter could teach them all to play chess, based on the lessons she had learned during the school day in the First Move™ program.
The way chess can incorporate and relate to other core subjects makes it an amazingly powerful tool. In First Move™ Teacher Training Workshops, classroom teachers learn how to develop their core curriculum using chess. Chess is one big science experiment; every time you play a game you are testing hypotheses and learning by trial and error. Chess is rooted in history and can open a door to history knowledge. Our current game of chess developed in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, though it began in India at least 1500 years ago. The King, Queen, Bishops, Knights, Rooks, and Pawns are symbolic of real groups of people in the Middle Ages and studies of them can take children into an understanding of what life was like at that time.
As children play chess, they begin to see the importance of thinking ahead, trying to figure out what their opponent might do next and what their alternatives are too. This ability to anticipate outcomes can transfer to their reading comprehension. Students can predict outcomes, and realize that characters in their stories are interconnected, just as just as they and their opponent, and the pieces on the chessboard are.
In the First Move classroom, kids aren’t thinking about the benefits of chess, and how it might help them on their standardized tests, but they are thinking while having fun. Their teachers can see the benefits, however. Julie Doan, teacher at Medina Elementary says:
My students are more focused—chess certainly accounts for this. In math, for instance, students who had studied chess were able to read graphs and work with charts so much more smoothly than the students I had last year, who weren’t even able to read a grid prior to the lessons in math class.
Smith, J. P. and Cage, B. N. (2000). The effects of chess instruction on the mathematics achievements of southern, rural, black secondary students. Research in the Schools, 7, 19-26.
About the author
Wendi Fischer is the Scholastic Director of America’s Foundation for Chess, a non-profit organization formed in 2000, dedicated to bringing chess into the schools so that all children can have the benefits of its lessons.