I’ve recently been revisiting the Dutch Steps method, written by Cor van Wijgerden and the late Rob Brunia. The whole philosophy behind the course is very different from what we are used to here in the UK and no doubt also in the United States. Neither better nor worse, just different.
The course was developed in 1987 for children from age 9 upwards, and comprises six steps, each of which would typically take a year to complete. The course material is dominated by tactics. The first step is concerned with the ability to see what’s on the board in front of you, the second and third volumes involve two-move tactics and the later volumes deeper tactics. There are preliminary ‘Stepping Stones’ books for children aged between 6 and 9 to complete before they start on the main course.
The teachers’ manual for Step 2 includes the following game played between two children at the beginning of the second step. So they’d be 10 years old and would have been playing for a year.
Yes, a lot of tactical oversights as you’d expect from children who haven’t been playing long, but what is noticeable is the lack of knowledge of opening principles. It’s interesting to note that opening principles are not covered at all until almost half way through Step 2, when pupils are taught the three golden rules: put a pawn in the centre, develop your knights and bishops and castle your king into safety.
We, on the other hand, tend to teach the three golden rules more or less straight away, so this will seem very strange to many of us. We’ll probably also show them Scholar’s Mate, explain how to stop it, and perhaps the first few moves of one or two openings, probably starting 1. e4 e5. We also, of course, usually start children at 6 or 7, rather than at 9, the age at which children should be starting Step 1.
You’ll see that Josina and Danielle, playing a lot of pawn moves and not developing their minor pieces or making their kings safe, reached a highly tactical position. My typical beginners’ games, on the other hand, will probably be Spanish Four Knights and Giuoco Pianissimo type games where the minor pieces are developed, the king is castled – and they reach a stodgy position where they find it hard to think of what to do next.
It may be very different from the way we approach teaching children about openings, but given the large number of strong young players produced in the Netherlands over the past couple of decades, it’s hard to argue with success.
Perhaps we need to consider taking a middle course. I’ll take another look at our two very different chess philosophies next week, but meanwhile do tell me about your experiences and about how and when you think we should teach openings to beginners.