In an excellent recent post, Ashvin Chauhan explained his preference for starting with rooks when teaching young beginners. This is absolutely fine, and, as Ashvin points out, the order used in the Steps course. My course, on the other hand, starts with pawns. I believe this is equally viable and have reasons for my choice. Let me explain.
I’ll start, as I often do, with Piaget. According to Piaget’s theory (and over-simplifying things a lot), in the pre-operational stage, roughly age 2 to 7, children are unable to think logically. In the concrete operational stage (roughly age 7 to 11) children can deal with simple concrete logic. In the formal operational stage (roughly age 11 upwards) children can deal with abstract logic. Of course there are exceptions: Luke McShane, for example, was able to deal with complex abstract logic at a very high level when he was only 7.
If I was writing a course for pre-operational learners I’d definitely start with the rook and bishop as they are the simplest pieces to learn. Children at this level may well find the pawn move hard to understand: it moves and captures in different ways and has the option of moving two squares only on its first move. On the other hand, I’m sceptical about the value of running chess courses at this level, although there are many who disagree with me, possibly because they’re trying to make money out of it.
My experience is that concrete operational thinkers have little problem understanding the pawn move, although they may need a few weeks of practice. It’s not necessarily a bad idea to start with something hard (but accessible) and continue with easier topics later on. The main reason, though, is that you can play interesting and challenging games with just pawns. Some children enjoy these so much that they are reluctant to learn about other pieces.
A future article will look in more detail about how I teach the pawn games. I’ll just add for now that the first player to get a pawn to the end of the board wins the game. You can also win by capturing all your opponent’s pawns. Different teachers use different rules to deal with ‘stalemate’. Some call it a draw, which seems sensible as it will make it easier to teach stalemate when you come to ‘big’ chess. Others call it a win for the player with more pawns, or a draw if the number of pawns is equal. I prefer to call it a win for the player who ‘stalemates’ his opponent, for reasons I’ll explain another time.
I’m very big on encouraging chess as a means of competition, as well as a learning tool. Most children enjoy playing games against their friends, seeing who wins and who loses, and this activity develops a wide range of ‘soft’ skills. I see no reason why schools couldn’t run tournaments or even matches against other schools using the pawn game. As it’s simpler and there are fewer choices you may well think it’s more suitable for young children than ‘big’ chess. An approach to teaching chess to young children which gets them playing meaningful games must, as far as I’m concerned, be a good thing. If you’re teaching chess on the curriculum you’ll probably not want to take a competitive approach, but you can still encourage the school to make provision for competitive games for those who wish to take part.
If, however, you’re teaching formal operational beginners, it may be possible to use a totally different approach. I’m hoping to write such a course at some point, and have already made some notes towards this end. One of my inspirations is the approach used by Tarrasch in his book The Game of Chess, still, in my opinion, more than 80 years after it was first written, one of the best basic instructional books for older learners. The course would start by introducing the king and queen, along with the concepts of check, checkmate and stalemate, and then work back from the ending to the middlegame and, finally, the opening. Again, this is something I may consider further in another post.