Too Young for Chess

When I was a small child, when technology such as the cordless phone was still considered science fiction, children were allowed to grow intellectually at a natural pace. We grew through our own trial and error way of discovering the world around us, with our parents patiently watching from the sidelines. Now, parents seem to be goaded (often by other parents) into developing their child’s mind literally while that child is still in the womb. When the child is finally born, the race for intellectual superiority is in full swing. Every parent is convinced that their child is brilliant, capable of changing the world (and a few do go on to do just that). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with thinking your child is absolutely brilliant but when you push a child at too young an age, more damage can be done than good. In my work teaching chess to children, I find an overwhelming number of parents enrolling their children in my classes at too young an age. They also expect their young children to excel at chess because, after all, their children are brilliant (according to the parents). Einstein’s childhood exemplifies the falsehood of developing a child’s mind at an early age in order to increase their chances of becoming the next great intellectual thinker of our times!

While it’s generally a good idea to learn chess at a young age, there is a minimum age at which the game should be introduced. Expose a child younger than that age to the game and the results will be mixed at best. For example, I have an entire class of kindergarten students who are roughly five years of age. Five years of age is far to young to get any real benefit out of chess. Why? Because chess requires abstract thinking that five year old children just haven’t developed. While I have had a few exceptions to this rule, the majority of kindergarten students shouldn’t be taking a chess class. They should be playing with Lego building blocks instead which actually would help them develop the mindset needed for chess. Building things, using the trial and error method, teaches young children how to problem solve, a requisite for playing chess. It also introduces them to abstract thinking. However, many (but not all) parents love to tell other parents that their children are studying chess “and they’re only in kindergarten!”

It’s as if there is this race to see who can produce the youngest genius but what it comes down to is childish bragging rights on the part of the parents. I recently had a parent of one of my kindergarten students say that her son wasn’t playing chess very well after two months in my class. I replied that, at the age of five, just moving the pieces correctly should be considered a milestone within this time frame. I asked her what she considered to be “playing chess well.” She said that her son was unable to deliver checkmate when playing her husband. By the way, her husband is a chess know-it-all, who makes weekly suggestions regarding my teaching program (beating him at chess on a regular basis seems to be a poor deterrent and pointing to my student’s tournament victories has little effect as well). Honestly, I had to keep my thoughts to myself because, after all, teaching chess is my job (although I consider it a privilege). Negative commentary on my part would create problems for our chess organization ( my sudden unemployment) leading me to a career in customer service which would leave the city of San Francisco with even more angry people. If I could speak freely, I’d tell her she was an idiot with no idea of how to develop her child’s mind (as well as a total disregard for anything resembling fashion sense). I’d also tell her that her husband was a Patzer. However, I patiently explained that children of a certain age don’t have the capacity, brilliant or not, to understand ideas that require a specific level of intellectual maturity that is developed over time (age)! There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your child, you just have to make sure you’re not pushing your child to satisfy your own needs. There might be someone that reads this and thinks “well my kid started chess classes at age five and learned the game quickly.” This does happen. Case in point, one of my five year old students: His father played club level chess and spent the better part of eighteen months working with his son, just concentrating on how the pawns and pieces moved. He also consulted the appropriate books and did the appropriate leg work. When his son arrived in my class, at the age of five, he actually knew quite a bit about the game (especially for a five year old). What made the difference, between the mom with no fashion sense and the well prepared chess playing dad? Dad took his time and didn’t set his expectations in the clouds! Patience is a word many parents think they know but often need to reacquaint themselves with it when it comes to chess and expectations.

I truly believe that everyone can benefit from chess, especially when it comes to life lessons. Chess can give children the ability to problem solve with relative ease. However, timing is everything! Putting a small child into a structured chess class can be extremely boring for that child because they don’t understand the concepts. It doesn’t mean they suffer from sub-intelligence. It just means they’re too young for abstract thinking and extended periods of focusing on something. Yet, many parents think their child has an intellectual problem if they’re not doing well in my chess class. Of course, I try to explain to them that this simply isn’t the case but we live in a world in which parents push their children to the breaking point, thinking they’re helping that child develop an advantage. Dear parents, there is no real intellectual race and parents who allow their children to develop their minds on their own often end up with children who go on to do amazing things.

Parents should also consider whether or not their children actually want to play chess at all. I’ve had students enrolled in my classes who have no interest in the game but their parents force them to attend. Fortunately, I can usually make the game interesting to them but it seems counterproductive to the child’s intellectual growth. What’s wrong with having a child not interested in chess take music lessons instead? Better yet, why not ask the child what they might be interested in? Parents never seem to consider asking their child what they want to do.

I know this all may seem a bit negative but I’m in the trenches so to speak and and watch the great intellectual race run every single day. So, what age is the right age to introduce children to chess? It depends on a number of variables so there is no concrete answer. However, I’ll pose a simple question to determine whether your child is ready for a chess class. Does your child have a problem with sitting still and focusing for 10 to 15 minutes at a time? If the answer is yes, then your child isn’t ready. When I say “focusing,” I don’t expect your child to be able to concentrate on something with the metal dexterity of a Jedi Knight. However, could you ask your child to look at a slightly abstract drawing for a few minutes and then have them answer some simple questions about that drawing, such as what they think it depicts and why they think it depicts what they think it depicts. Can they create a story around the picture? How long can they study the drawing before they start fidgeting? This simple test will tell you a bit about the concentration, depth and abstract thinking your child employs when looking at the drawing. While not an exact science, it tends to shed some light on the issue of being able to sit still, concentrate and interpret an abstract form. There are a number of ways to garner this information, such as having your child build something with Lego building blocks and then explain what they’ve built. Note how long your child spends working on the project.

The point is this: Test your child’s ability to sit relatively still (after all, even the most well behaved children will always fidget a bit), concentrate on something and provide an explanation before enrolling them in a chess class where they’ll have to sit still, concentrate and tackle abstract thinking. Don’t force your child into taking a chess class if they don’t want to. Let them become interested in the game on their own. Forcing them into taking on such a complex game will only produce negative results. The older they are, the better the chances that they’ll enjoy the game and learn how to play it correctly. Third grade is a good age to start taking a chess class.

If your five year old child doesn’t take to chess like a duck to water, don’t worry about it. You can always try again when they’re older. Don’t force the game on them because children don’t want to do what they don’t want to do. Be gentle, nurture your children and allow them to grow at their own pace. It worked wonders for Einstein. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).