Cut Out and Keep

As promised last week, here’s your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how children of different ages learn and play chess.

  • Piaget Classification: Pre-Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 2-7 (Infant School)
  • UK school system: up to Year 2
  • US school system: up to 1st Grade
  • Logical ability: only very simple egocentric logic
  • What children can learn: the moves of the pieces, will struggle to understand check/mate: will benefit from playing mini games rather than complete chess
  • How children learn: constant repetition of the moves of the pieces until they remember them:they will not be able to teach themselves
  • How children play: either with no logic or with flawed logic: will not be able to consider their opponent’s perspective: they may see threats but will not check that their move is safe before playing it
  • Where should children play: at home or at school on the curriculum or with other beginners: unless they are working hard at the game at home, children at this level will benefit little joining an after-school club and playing against more experienced players. It’s best to wait for children to get through this level before encouraging them to play in tournaments.
  • My term for chess played at this level: illogical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Flip-Coin Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Concrete Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 7-11 (Junior School)
  • UK school system: Years 3-6
  • US school system: 2nd-5th Grade
  • Logical ability: simple logic: if you attack my queen I’ll move it
  • What children can learn: all the rules (but may struggle with en passant), the basic logic of the game (superior force wins)
  • How children learn: repetition and reinforcement, mimicry and memory. Children will need to repeat what they’ve learnt over and over again because they won’t have a higher level understanding. Children will mimic what they see: if they play regularly against a proficient player they will start to play well but if they play against weak players they will copy their bad habits. Children at this level might be able to teach themselves the moves but will need adult help to get any further.
  • How children play: simple logic is used: children will focus on just one aspect of the position, identify one criterion and choose the first safe move which meets that criterion. They will not consider alternatives or look ahead in any meaningful way.
  • Where should children play: at this level children will benefit from joining a school or community chess club and taking part in low-level competitions against other children of their age. They will not be ready for playing in open-age competitions against adults. They can also benefit from playing chess on the internet.
  • My term for chess played at this level: simple logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Hope Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Formal Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 11 and over (Secondary School)
  • UK school system: Years 7 and over
  • US school system: 6th Grade and over
  • Logical ability: complex logic: if you attack my queen I’ll consider all the safe squares and choose the one I prefer. Children will be able to draw conclusions from examples, switching between the general and the specific and back again.
  • What children can learn: children can start to learn aspects of chess that require higher level understanding as well as just memory. They will be able to appreciate strategic concepts and start to learn openings.
  • How children learn: at this level children will be developing understanding which will complement their memory skills. They will still benefit from either group or individual tuition, but will also be developing self-teaching skills. This will enable them to teach themselves through books, DVDs or websites. They will also be developing the power of self-criticism so they’ll be able to identify the mistakes in their own games and learn from them.
  • How children play: children can now apply complex logic to chess. They can learn to consider every aspect of the position, to consider their opponent’s thoughts and intentions, to make a choice from several alternatives and to look ahead.
  • Where should children play: children should be playing regularly in chess clubs and taking part in tournaments. They can start to play in competitions against adults as well as against other children. If they are still at primary school they will not gain much from attending the chess club, although they may wish to do so for social reasons. Playing chess at secondary school will be great as long as there are opponents who play to their level or above, or who are keen to learn.
  • My term for chess played at this level: complex logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Real Chess

  • Please bear in mind that the ages quoted are approximate. Some children will achieve these cognitive milestones earlier, in some cases very much earlier, so, provided they have help from a Real Chess player, they may be able to play Real Chess before the age of 11. Other children will achieve them later, or not at all. Children who are attracted to chess are quite likely to be cognitively advanced for their age. Of course the vast majority of adults who play chess may well be using complex logic in other situations but have never learnt how to apply it to chess so still play Flip-Coin or Hope Chess rather than Real Chess.

    Parents who themselves play Flip-Coin Chess might think that’s all there is to the game, teach their children how the pieces move, think they’re really good and sign them up for their school chess club. Children will need help (ideally one to one) to understand the basic logic of the game and reach the next level.

    Parents who themselves play Hope Chess will take things further, and will be able to help their children to some extent. If children want to play Real Chess, though, they’ll need further help, ideally from playing and learning at a club with other children at the same level or higher along with one to one tuition.

    So, within a primary school club there will be children who play Flip-Coin Chess because that’s what their parents play, or because they’re too young to understand Hope Chess, but they will usually get frustrated after a couple of terms because they keep on losing to the Hope Chess players without having any idea why.

    There will also be children playing Hope Chess because they’ve learnt something about the game from their parents. They will do well in their school club, but will associate the game with their school and are likely to give up when they change schools. There will be few, if any, players within a primary school club playing Real Chess.

    But understanding young children’s limitations regarding chess will enable us to produce lessons, coaching materials and courses based on how they learn and what can realistically be expected of them. It will also help us dissuade well-meaning parents who are ignorant of chess from thinking chess is suitable for their three-year-olds.

    Richard James

    This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Richard James on by .

    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.