A Nuanced View

I’m sure all politicians, whatever their views, will have a shared frustration that their opinions are frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and oversimplified, and that others will often claim they hold views which are very different from their actual views.

This is going to happen whenever you put your views on any subject in writing. Those who have genuine knowledge and expertise in a subject will usually have pretty nuanced views, while those with less knowledge and expertise will be more likely to see things in black and white.

Jack and Jake are five years old. They’ve seen a chess set in a shop window and would like to learn the game. Should they do so or not? Jane and Joan, who enjoy playing chess in their school club, have been given entry forms for a junior tournament. Should they take part or not? Tim and Tom are learning some mini-chess games as part of the maths curriculum in their school. Should they play chess at home with their parents or not?

Here are my answers. Jack should learn chess, but Jake shouldn’t. Jane should play in the tournament but Joan shouldn’t. Tim should play with his parents at home, but Tom shouldn’t.

How come?

The reason is very simple. Children are different. Some children have a lot of potential chess ability, most children have a fairly average chess ability. Some children will find chess very difficult at any age. (Most of the latest research from the likes of Robert Plomin suggests that, despite what some might believe, IQ is more down to nature than nurture.) Parents are different as well. Some will be knowledgeable about chess, some won’t. Some will have the time and inclination to help their children, some won’t. Some will want their children to take chess seriously, some won’t. So it all depends. I’ll repeat that in capitals for anyone who doesn’t understand me: IT ALL DEPENDS!!

Jack is a precociously bright and mature boy. His parents are both proficient chess players and will be able to help him a lot at home. He will probably benefit from learning chess now and in a couple of years time he’ll be able to do well in junior tournaments. Jake is an averagely bright boy whose maturity, concentration and self-regulation skills are age-appropriate but no more than that. His parents are not chess players and are too busy to have time to learn the game properly. It would be great for Jake to start by playing some simpler strategy games and perhaps learn chess in a few years time.

Jane, like Jack, has chess playing parents. She has learnt a lot and wins most of her games at school. She’s also mature enough to understand that she’ll probably lose a few games in her first tournament. Joan has not yet reached the same level and she’d struggle against the stronger players she’d meet in a tournament. She really wouldn’t enjoy the experience, so would be well advised to wait a year or so, until she’s had more experience.

Tim’s parents, while not brilliant players, know enough to be able to help him with the basics. It would be really great for Tim to play chess at home. When he can beat them he’ll be able to join a chess club and perhaps have lessons with a private tutor. Tom’s parents think they’re good players, but they set the board up the wrong way round, think rooks are called castles, have never heard of the en passant rule, and start their games with 1. h4 2. Rh3. It might be helpful if they played mini-games with him, but if they tried to play complete games they’d put him off by passing on their own bad habits and misinformation about the game. It would be great if they could buy The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, or perhaps talk to Tim’s parents. If parents are knowledgeable about chess they should certainly play with their kids, as long as they talk through what’s happening rather than just acting the competitive dad and taking all their pieces without explanation.

I’ll say it again. The right age for a child to learn chess might be anywhere between 3 and 13, or even not at all. It depends on all sorts of things: the child, how much the parents know about chess, how much time they have to help their children, the culture in which the child is being brought up.

My interpretation of educational theory as applied to chess (and if you disagree or interpret educational theory another way please feel free to let me know) is that typically developing children will be able to handle simple abstract logic from the age of about 7, and will be able to handle complex multi-dimensional abstract logic from the age of about 11. Some children will be able to handle both simple and complex logic much earlier, others much later, or not at all.

It seems reasonable to me that primary/elementary school education should be based on the typically developing child, while also providing opportunities for those whose development is advanced and support for those who are lagging behind. Bear in mind also that some children might excel in a particular domain at an early age but make little progress, while others might struggle at an early age but later excel. I excelled academically at an early age but struggled later, while I know a lot of people who struggled in their early years at school but went on to achieve academic success at a high level.

Observe, if you will, the Finnish education system, considered by many to be the best in the world. Children don’t start formal education in the three Rs until the age of 7. As these subjects involve logic this makes perfect sense to me. However, schools provide facilities and opportunities for younger children who wish to do so to read books and do sums. Many children take advantage of this, and will also be learning these subjects at home.

So if you want to put strategy games on a primary school curriculum (and whether or not you should do this is another matter entirely) you should probably be doing so using games requiring simple logic rather than complex logic: mini-chess rather than ‘big chess’. You should also provide facilities for younger children who are ready to play ‘big chess’, either through a school chess club or through working in conjunction with an external junior chess club.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.