When I was a boy we had a dog. Every day one of us would take her for a walk in the local park, where we’d meet a lot of other dogs and their owners. I still live very near the same park now, but about a mile away. (It’s a linear riverside park, about two miles in length. I used to live half a mile from one end: now I live half a mile from the other end. I’ll tell you another time and another place about the farm and flax mills where I used to live and the gunpowder mills where I now live.) These days, more than half a century on, you’ll still find a lot of dogs there, but the walkers will be different. You won’t find any kids walking their dogs as I did as kids aren’t allowed out on their own any more. They’re probably too busy looking at screens, anyway. You won’t find so many individuals or families walking their dogs, either. What you will find, especially on weekdays, which you wouldn’t have found when I was a boy, is dog walkers, with several dogs under their control. In this part of the world, many people are too busy, or just too preoccupied, to give their pooches the exercise they require so they’re prepared to pay good money for others to do so.
At one level you might think it’s sad that so many people lack the time or inclination to exercise their dogs, but at another level everyone wins. The dog owners are happy to be relieved of a chore. The dog walkers are happy because they can make a decent living doing something they enjoy, earning money from their love of animals and spending time in the open air. The dogs are happy as well: perhaps walkies is more fun if you can share it with your four-legged friends rather than just your two-legged master. Bear in mind that the owners aren’t looking for anything difficult or complicated: they just want someone reliable who is good with animals and will keep them safe. If they want their dog to win the Greyhound Derby or become Supreme Champion at Cruft’s they’ll take a different approach.
It seems to me that, in my affluent part of London, parents take the same attitude to playing with their children that they take to playing with their dogs. They’re too busy to do it themselves, working long hours in demanding jobs to enable them to afford the exorbitant house prices in this part of the world. They recognise, quite rightly, the benefits of strategy games for young children, but many of them lack the time or the inclination to play these games. So instead, just as they’ll happily pay a dog walker to entertain Fido and Rover, they’ll happily sign Johnny and Jenny up for their school chess club. Again, at one level everyone wins. The parents, if they’re not themselves interested in chess, are happy to be relieved of a chore. The chess tutors are happy to be paid for something they enjoy. Johnny and Jenny are happy because playing chess with their friends at school is more fun than playing with Mum and Dad at home. If they want Johnny and Jenny to become grandmasters they’ll take a different approach: they’ll sign them up for a higher level club (in my area that will be Richmond Junior Club), enter them in competitions and perhaps employ a private tutor.
Now if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree about the benefits of strategy games for kids, and probably also agree that chess is one of the world’s greatest strategy games. You’ll also agree that some talented children with supportive parents can excel at chess at an early age. Johnny and Jenny’s parents, though, are too busy provide much support, and let’s assume they are typical, rather than exceptionally bright, students. Is chess really the best game for them to start with, or would they do better to learn simpler games, moving onto chess when they’re ready? Perhaps we should teach them a wide variety of games from different cultures. Perhaps we should introduce them to chess through mini-games before encouraging them to play full games. Perhaps they’ll benefit more from playing games which are easier to master than chess. Perhaps they’ll gain more enjoyment from games with simpler rules which don’t last as long. Perhaps if we take this approach we’ll be able to persuade more schools to start clubs and more chess teachers will be able to make more money.
Ideally, perhaps, schools should run two clubs: a main group for kids who can already play a complete game, and a beginners’ group for kids who can’t play a complete game, or who would just prefer simpler and quicker games.
I’ve been helping a large local Primary School with their chess club for a year now. The club is over-subscribed (this term we’ve set a cap on 24 members) and the school wants to start another session next term. I’ve proposed that they make this a mini-chess club, and the teacher involved is very much in agreement with this. Here’s an edited version of the letter I’ve suggested could go out to parents:
Strategy games should play a part in all children’s lives. They provide a fun and enjoyable way for children to learn logic, problem solving, self-regulation and social skills.
There are many, like me, who believe that chess is the greatest of all strategy games, but, because of its difficulty, it’s really much more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children. Although most young children have little difficulty learning how the pieces move, they find it hard to cope with the complex abstract logic and the multitude of choices every move.
In this club children will not be playing complete games of chess, but will instead be playing mini-games, solving puzzles and answering quizzes using subsets of the chess. The course will be fully structured and fully documented so that parents and other family members will be able to replicate the activities at home. We’d also like to stress that the club will be equally suitable for both girls and boys.
Perhaps this sort of club will attract more members. Perhaps parents and children just want chess clubs and nobody will be interested. Either way, it will be good to find out. I’ll try to get back to you in the New Year and let you know what happens next.