Childish Things

Today’s reading is taken from the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13 Verse 11. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

I guess I should say from the outset that I don’t necessarily agree with everything St Paul wrote, but this surely is a self-evident truth.

Just how do children understand and think? We know a lot more about this now, of course, than St Paul did nearly two thousand years ago. One of those who have helped us in this understanding is the Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

Piaget postulated that children go through four stages of cognitive development: the Sensorimotor Stage (birth to about age 2), the Pre-Operational Stage (from about ages 2 to 7), in which children are unable to understand concrete logic or manipulate information, the Concrete Operational Stage (from about ages 7 to 11), in which children can use concrete logic but not abstract logic, and finally the Formal Operational Stage (from about age 11 onwards) in which children can use abstract logic.

Chess, being very much a game of abstract logic, is really, according to Piaget’s theory, something most suitable for children aged 11 upwards: children of secondary school age. Piaget’s views have been much criticized and refined over the years, though, and we are well aware that in certain circumstances very young children can play chess to a very high level. But from observation of the low standards of chess in primary school chess clubs we can see that, for most children, Piaget makes sense.

In fact everything about the way we, as fairly serious players, approach chess screams ‘adult activity’ rather than ‘kids’ activity’. The nature of the study and research we carry out when, for example, learning an opening. The complex thinking skills when choosing a move. The ability to be self-critical, to learn from our mistakes, to identify our weaknesses and work on ironing them out. The ability to handle our clock well. The ability to cope with the stress and pressure of tournament chess. The aesthetic beauty of chess. The appreciation of the game’s literature, history and heritage. Much of this is way beyond the capacity of one who understands and thinks as a child.

But, and there’s always a but, chess ‘looks’ like a children’s game. Younger children are naturally much more attracted to board games than teenagers or adults, and are always eager to jump at the opportunity to learn a new board game. The pieces themselves are, by their nature, physically attractive to children, who long and love to learn about their different moves. As they get older, though, children move onto video games, and then to other interests. Our understandable desire to get more kids playing chess leads us to promote chess as a game for children, but without the skills of thinking and understanding that they will only develop later, it will just be a ‘childish thing’ that they will give up within a couple of years.

There’s another danger in presenting chess as a ‘childish thing’. If it’s seen as being an activity suitable for young children it will, self-evidently, be difficult to promote it as being something ‘cool’ for teenagers. Would any self-respecting teenager want to be seen as someone who plays games suitable for 7-year-old kids?

While chess is superficially attractive for young children, and promoting chess for young children is also superficially attractive, perhaps we should be sending out a different message: that chess is an adult game at which some young children, in exceptional circumstances, can excel.

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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.