Every year the fourth grade math teacher at my daughter’s school teaches all the fourth grade students to play chess. Not part of the curriculum or required by the school, it’s just his thing that he somehow fits into lessons. Sometimes the class divides up into partners to play during class “chess time”, sometimes the teacher effectively uses this activity to occupy kids while he teaches math to small groups. And the students love it. Walking down the hallway near that 4th grade class, I’ve seen many different pairs of kids thoroughly engaged in a game – quietly contemplating, circling the board for their opponent’s view, dissecting a maneuver. Most of how I know about chess at our school though comes from the spillover at home: for much of my daughter’s fourth grade year, whenever we had kids over after school, the chess set would come out. I heard running commentary on who had beaten whom, surprised accounts of so-and-so who never does well in math but is a formidable chess opponent, discussions of strategies and numbers of pieces left on the boards after a win. My daughter often asked to play with her dad or me in the evenings. At the beginning of the year I would warn, “are you sure you want to make that move?” but after a few games with my (granted, not very insightful) commentary she got frustrated with this and told me not to help her. It wasn’t long before I could seriously have used her saying to me, “are you sure you want to make that move?” In our house the obsession wore off with the end of fourth grade – and the board now comes out only occasionally. My daughter had an option to continue chess through “chess club” at our local library, but she chose not to. Anyway, I like to think she learned some cognitive skills through the experience, and she certainly acquired confidence that she could play the game and could pick it up in the future.
I thought about this great burst of chess in our lives when I came across this news article  reporting that the ministry of schools in Armenia has decided to fund books, equipment and training to the tune of $1.5 million, in a new program to teach chess to all kids six and older for two hours a week starting this fall. The effectiveness of this is debated (Should every kid be forced to learn chess? the article asks). Based on my daughter’s experience, I say there’s a real plus to teaching it to all kids in elementary school. Armenia has a strong chess culture and amazing number of champions (and an agenda to become a chess superpower) – all which obviously have something to do with the decision to devote these resources to the game. (I love that Armenians admire their chess champions as we do our athletic stars.) Maybe we don’t need quite the financial commitment that Armenia plans – it’s generally a pretty cheap activity! – but pushing each kid enough to learn the game empowers them. There are studies out there to show chess boosts development of executive functioning, critical reasoning ability, logic skills. These forward-thinking skills aren’t touched on by the usual math worksheets. Is there a down side? Oh, yeah. It takes away from time to learn standardized test material. Things often come down to this.
This reminded me of a Seed magazine article I saw not long ago: “The Second Place Sex: Why chess may be an ideal laboratory for investigating gender gaps in science and beyond,”  which suggests similarities between problem-solving skills required in chess and skills required to succeed in academic science. The article muses about the parallel gender gaps in high-powered chess (where 1% of world chess masters are female) and in high-powered science and brings up possible cultural, psychological and biological underpinnings for these abilities. Picking apart causation seems removed for the many who are living academic lives (especially those balancing children) but the article brings up some studies that are interesting to think about and touches on the rousing contentious literature behind this. For me for now, I vote for upping exposure for young ‘uns of all ilks to the game of chess, not necessarily for the purpose of increasing the number of American chess masters, or women chess masters, or women in science; not even because it yields intellectual benefits, but because it accomplishes a valuable training in a satisfying and fun way for kids.
Does your child’s school teach chess in some form? Do you agree that it’s something worth pushing for? Or have you had a different experience?