Towards a Solution

So far in this series of articles I’ve outlined my view that, while Primary School chess clubs give children short-term enjoyment, they produce children who play chess at a low level and have no long-term interest in the game.

I believe this has come about because decisions are made by a combination of parents and teachers with little knowledge of the game and chess players with little knowledge of how children learn and process information.

To a certain extent, though, the problem is not with the chess clubs themselves, but with the fact that many of the children attending these clubs have been taught badly by well-meaning but ill-informed parents. In some other countries children join a club to learn chess. Here, most children learn chess to join a club. (Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, but, either way, we need to ensure that they learn correctly.)

Let’s consider first what we might want from a junior chess programme:

  1. That all children should have the opportunity to learn chess
  2. That all children who learn chess are taught well, ideally using material appropriate to their age and cognitive development and devised in collaboration by chess players and educators.
  3. That children who are interested should have the opportunity for serious tuition
  4. That we want to increase the number of young people playing serious competitive chess and encourage them to continue playing into their teens and beyond
  5. That we want to identify children with exceptional talent and encourage them to reach the top

Now consider these statements:

  1. If we want to look for ‘prodigies’ we need to encourage (some) children to start young
  2. The younger children start chess the more adult help they will need
  3. The later children start chess the easier they will find it to make progress and the less likely it is that they will get stuck at some point
  4. The later children start chess the more likely they are to become serious adult players
  5. You might consider it preferable to teach a small number of children well rather than a large number of children badly
  6. Older children can teach themselves how to play better if they are interested: younger children, by and large, cannot
  7. Experience in other countries suggests that the best practice for teaching most younger players is to teach sequentially, step by step, taking a year or so to learn all the rules

We need to move away from the over-simplistic ‘let’s do chess’ and ‘chess is good for you’ mentality and get these messages out to schools and parents in order to make progress. We need to tell both schools and parents that they have choices in how they approach chess. The choice that schools make will depend on their size, intake and ethos as well as the level of chess expertise and enthusiasm of the staff. The choice that parents make will depend on their parenting style, their children’s maturity and cognitive development and the level of support the parents are willing or able to provide. We also need to promote good practice in teaching and organising chess. Here’s how we might start.

Let’s provide information for schools based on the ‘swimming pool’ model. We can offer schools three products:

  1. A sequential course for beginners which could be run by a teacher or parent either on the curriculum or as an after-school activity. Teaching skills would be more important than chess skills to deliver this: all the teacher would need to do is keep one step ahead of the class.
  2. An opportunity for children to play chess with their friends under fairly serious conditions. This could happen once a week at a chess club but we could encourage schools to run tournaments and other activities during the week as well. This could be run by a teacher or parent with sufficient basic chess knowledge to answer simple questions and encourage good practice. We could produce a variety of documents to enable schools to run chess at this level.
  3. More serious chess tuition for a small number of children who want to take chess further and play competitively. This is where a school might want to employ a professional chess tutor, but again teaching ability would be more important than playing strength.

A very small number of schools, mostly in the private sector, might also want to offer higher level chess tuition from a player of master strength.

Let’s also get the right message across to parents. Children from chess playing families will develop their skills automatically, but parents still have to be aware of their children’s limitations and ensure that they don’t do too much too soon. Parents who play little or no chess need help, though, in making the best decisions for their children. There are, in my opinion, two sensible options. You could use chess as a learning tool designed to accelerate your children’s cognitive development, start young, say 6 or 7, and work with them intensively at home, or you could decide to let your children develop naturally and wait until they’re 9 or 10, or even later, before encouraging them to do much chess.

I have three other major proposals as well. Firstly, the establishment of a national chess course, secondly the establishment of a national network of junior chess clubs, and thirdly the establishment of a national junior chess association separate from the ECF.

These proposals will be considered in more detail in future articles.

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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.