If a primary school asked me about starting a chess club, this is what I would tell them.
There are three chess services you might consider offering your pupils. But before I tell you what they are, there’s something you should know.
Young children, with a few exceptions, will not be helped by learning the moves in half an hour and then starting a full game. Good practice, as recommended by leading experts on early years chess throughout the world, involves children learning one piece at a time, one rule at a time, one concept at a time. Knowing the rules is not enough: you need chessboard vision, understanding of relationships between pieces (attack/defence) and specific cognitive skills. Most young children will learn these best through activities with small numbers of pieces, rather than through complete games.
Yes, it’s part of childhood that children will try lots of different things. They’ll like some, but not like others. They’ll be good at some, but not others. But if children have been taught the basics incorrectly at home before they join a chess club they will stand no chance of making very much progress.
So, what are the three services:
- Teaching chess to beginners.
- Providing facilities for children to play social chess with their friends (where talking is allowed and no one minds much about taking moves back).
- Providing facilities for children to be introduced to serious, competitive chess (which should be played in silence, with ‘touch move’ strictly enforced).
You might logically decide to offer any one of these services, any combination of two, or all three. You might also, once you’ve thought about it, decide you don’t want to do chess after all.
What doesn’t make sense, (although, to be realistic, as chess has a low public profile in this country, you may not have much choice) is to say ‘Let’s do chess’ and start a chess club trying to provide all three services at the same time.
If you want to teach beginners, you will not, if you agree with Jesper Hall, need a chess tutor at all, but what you will need is a course written by primary school teachers in conjunction with chess players. If you can afford to do so, employing a chess tutor as a classroom assistant might be helpful. My next post will address this further.
If you’ve ensured that all children learn the basics correctly you probably won’t need a chess tutor for social chess. You’ll need someone in the room to ensure that the children don’t start throwing the pieces about, but that’s all. If children haven’t been taught the basics you’ll need someone there to answer simple questions.
If you want to offer serious competitive chess (playing against other schools, taking part in the UK Chess Challenge) then you will, unless you have a suitably knowledgeable member of staff or parent, need a professional chess tutor. But it will help both the children and the tutor if you ensure that children have sufficient chess knowledge and maturity before joining a club of this nature.
If you try to offer all three services at the same time in the same club you won’t be doing any of them very well. In particular, teaching beginners should be taught separately from children playing ‘big chess’.
You might wonder why I feel so strongly about this, and why I’m so critical of what happens in most primary school chess clubs.
The answer is very simple. If this system had been in place 60 years ago, I would not have become a serious chess player. In fact, very few children from my background, with non-academic, non-chess playing parents, now take up competitive chess. That, and precisely that, is why I say what I say and do what I do.
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