Consider your local swimming pool. There are a number of things kids can do there.
First of all you’ll probably want your kids to learn to swim. There will be times or places set aside for this where they will have either one-to-one or small group lessons with a swimming coach who may not be an Olympic champion but will specialise in working with young children, giving them confidence in the water and teaching them the basics.
After they’ve learnt to swim they’ll probably want to go along to the pool with their friends to splash around making a noise while perhaps swimming a few widths. All good fun, and perhaps good exercise as well. They don’t need a swimming coach to do this, just a lifeguard to help them if they get into trouble.
A few, and it will only be a few, will decide they are interested in swimming competitively. They’ll get up at 6:00 two or three mornings a week and spend an hour or so at the pool before school with a swimming coach experienced at working with children who are interested in competing against other clubs, and perhaps at higher levels. The kids there will be expected to be serious: any messing about and they’ll probably be thrown out.
Note that these three activities would, of necessity, need to take place at different times and/or in different places. Consider for a moment what would happen if they didn’t.
Likewise, a Primary School chess club (or a Junior Chess Club) could also offer three services. It could teach young children how the pieces move, it could provide facilities for children to play ‘fun’ casual games of chess with their friends, and it could provide more serious play and instruction for children interested in playing competitively.
Depending on the size, intake and ethos of the school, as well as whether or not there is any member of staff with an interest in the game, it could logically decide to offer any combination of these services, all of them or none of them. What usually happens, though, is that the school decides ‘let’s do chess’, appoints someone to run it (who could depending on the school, be the cheapest person they can find, or the highest graded person they can find), sends a letter out to the parents and waits to see who turns up.
What happens then is that you’ll get some kids who don’t know how to play chess: their parents have signed them up so that they can learn from an expert. You’ll also get kids who think they can play chess because they’ve been taught by an ill-informed friend or relation, but who go round calling rooks ‘castles’ and taking their opponent’s kings all the time. You’ll get a lot of kids who just about know the moves and want to be able to play some low-level fun games while chatting with their friends. You’ll also get a few kids who are more serious and would like to play competitively. You might also get one or two kids who are already strong for their age and take part in tournaments. If you put them all together in the same room at the same time with the same teacher it’s just not going to work.
Imagine for a moment you see a group of mates playing bad chess in the pub over a few beers. If you went up to them, berated them for having the board the wrong way round, told them to stop talking and tried to teach them the Fried Liver Attack I’d fear for your safety. Likewise, most kids who play chess in school clubs just want to have fun and for them the idea of taking chess seriously is as bizarre as the idea of taking Snakes and Ladders seriously.
Here, we have a conflict of interest. Kids like to join chess clubs so that they can have fun playing with their friends: they believe that ‘chess is fun’. Schools and probably also many parents want kids to do chess because they’ve read somewhere that ‘chess is good for you’ and ‘chess makes you smarter’. But playing informal low level games with your friends probably won’t make you smarter. It may be ‘good for you’ to the extent that playing any game with your friends is ‘good for you’, but no more than that. And it’s not necessarily ‘fun’ if a chess teacher makes you play in silence and stops your games to give you a lesson on the demo board on something you probably won’t understand. This conflict of interest arises partly from the fact that the way we as games-playing adults would define ‘game’ is very different from the way a 7-year-old kid would define ‘game’.
There are several things chess teachers could do to help schools make intelligent decisions about chess. We could offer a structured step-by-step course for beginners. We could offer a structured course for kids wanting to improve their chess, with a preliminary test to make sure they are strong enough to understand the course, and we could insist that children solved worksheets for homework. We could suggest to schools that if they just wanted to offer low-level casual chess the club could be run by a parent or teacher rather than a chess professional. We could suggest that schools should make chess sets available to pupils every break and lunchtime (this doesn’t seem to happen in most schools) and that they select the most serious or enthusiastic players to join the chess club. We would then be running smaller, more focussed groups of children who want to learn, rather than having 40 or 50 kids of different ages and strengths in the same room at the same time. In an affluent area such as Richmond where parents are prepared to pay good money for a good product this should be viable. In other areas it may require sponsorship.
It’s how swimming pools work, so why not chess clubs?