Kumon Chess

So we’ve ascertained that if we want to encourage young children to learn chess we need to encourage their parents to help and support them. Children who just play once a week at school will make little progress and soon drop out. At the same time, I know from many conversations I’ve had over the past few months that there are a lot of parents out there who want to help their children but don’t know where to start. In most cases these are parents whose own knowledge doesn’t go far beyond how the pieces move.

Where do they turn for help? At present, at least here in the UK, there’s nowhere they can go for impartial advice given by someone who understands education and child development as well as chess.

Let’s first of all assume that parents don’t just want their children to learn chess as a parlour game but want them to take chess seriously, either because they want their children to improve their cognitive and non-cognitive skills though chess or because they want them to have the opportunity, if they choose, to become serious competitive players.

What we want, then, is to provide a course which will enable parents to learn more about chess themselves and then monitor their children’s progress. The course needs to be based on sound pedagogic principles appropriate for a typical child.

Let’s look for a moment at two Japanese teaching methods which are also very popular in the West and see if they can help us devise a suitable course. I’m referring to Kumon maths and language teaching and Suzuki music teaching.

The Kumon method, as you may know, involves children working at home completing worksheets of increasing difficulty.

From the kumon.co.uk website:

“Your child will begin at a level they are comfortable with, determined by an assessment at enrolment. By completing easier work in the initial stages of study your child will achieve from the start, building confidence from a solid foundation. From this easy starting point your child will progress steadily, completing a short piece of work every day. They will study at their own pace, and at each stage work will be tailored to their individual needs. Every new assignment will be slightly more challenging than the last, and with this gradual progression, your child will be able to acquire the solid study skills they need to become an advanced learner. Through focused and directed study, your child will learn to master each topic. They will need to complete their work with a certain degree of speed and accuracy before they can move on to the next level. This not only builds a growing sense of achievement, but enables your child to tackle more challenging work with confidence.”

The idea of step by step progress through worksheets sounds very much like the Dutch Steps Method and other similar courses used in Russia and elsewhere. (For various cultural reasons which I might outline in a later post it wouldn’t be so easy to use Steps in its current form here in the UK.) It won’t be for everyone, and it needs to be complemented by practical play, but I believe such a course should be developed for those who wish to use it.

Yes, many children will find it boring, but look at it this way. If you want to become a good pianist you have to practise your scales over and over again. If you want to become a good tennis player you have to practise the same shots over and over again. Both of these can be very boring. Speed plus accuracy equals mastery, according to the Kumon people, and this is certainly true of chess.

There’s also much to learn from the Suzuki method of teaching music. Here, from the britishsuzuki.org.uk website is what they say about parental involvement:

“Parents have an active role in the Suzuki Method. Rather than being seen as a liability and kept out of lessons, parents are expected to attend lessons, to take notes and to practise with their children, most fully in the early years. It is not necessary for a parent to be able to play the instrument themselves. The teacher will show them all they need to know in order to help their child. Indeed, many parents have been so inspired helping their children, they have taken up music study themselves.”

And this on practising:

“Children learn to speak their language competently because they speak it every day. So music should be practised every day. Of course, this kind of commitment is difficult to make and Suzuki understood this. He therefore said: ‘Only practise on the days you eat.’”

One of the problems with primary school chess clubs is that parents are not involved. In my experience, parents pick their children up from outside the building and you rarely if ever get the chance to speak to them, let alone involve them in their children’s learning.

If we want to encourage children to start chess early we need to establish a Kumon/Suzuki type chess system for those parents who want their children to take the game seriously but are not necessarily themselves strong players. This means firstly a course, and secondly a network of chess centres where children can visit for assessments and assignments and to meet and play with other children on the course.

You can see my first attempt at the first stage of such a course at www.chesskids.com/newcourse/journey.pdf. At present it’s free so if you’re interested, download it and use it as you wish. I’ll be writing about this in more detail in a later post.

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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.