Chess for Early Learners

The Sunrise Center for Excellence in Chess, in partnership with Family Central and the Broward Education Foundation, is now offering training to equip teachers in pre-school programs as well as for kindergarten, first and second grade and ESE teachers.

There are a number of well-documented benefits of teaching chess to children. The game imparts critical thinking and problem-solving skills while encouraging children to concentrate for extended periods of time. We are often asked how young is too young for a child to learn chess. Many children have learned the game by the age of three and most can do so in a classroom setting by the age of four.

Sunil Weeramantry, Executive Director of the NSCF, pictured at right looking over a game in the kindergarten and 1st grade section of a recent tournament, is a pioneer in the field of curricular chess instruction. Starting in 1979, he developed a comprehensive chess program at Hunter College Campus Schools, a New York school for talented and gifted students, where chess is now a required subject for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school also has a chess club that is among the most successful in national competition.

Throughout the 1980s, Sunil also taught chess in the pre-K program at Hunter. (The pre-K program was dropped after state funding changes). Over 10 years, he taught more than 500 four-year-olds how to play. “One of the reasons Hunter was consistently the National K-1 champion team,” Sunil said, “is because we started the students in pre-K. By the time those children who were interested in competing came to tournaments, they already had a lot of experience playing chess.”

Although chess has many different pieces, each with its own unique movement, learning them is not difficult.

“Even a very young child can understand simple directional movement: up/down; left/right. Adding the diagonal can be difficult for some, but once that is mastered the child can understand the movement for 5 of the 6 chess pieces,” Sunil explained.

While many school programs introduce chess at later grades, Sunil makes the case that the developmental aspects of a child’s behavior that are needed for proper conduct in the classroom are not a pre-requisite for chess, they are actually taught through the game. 

“Chess has an inherent discipline. It teaches manners. On a social level, the child learns to appreciate that you take turns. You move. He moves. You can’t take 2 turns,” he said. “The game also teaches respect for the other person. When it’s the other person’s turn, you are quiet and respectful and you wait. Other games have this component but it is more pronounced in chess. One has to respect that the other person needs time to think too, so you wait quietly. Getting used to that you naturally learn to engage in a quiet activity.”

How you act needs to be disciplined. At the next level, how you think also needs to be disciplined and that begins by teaching the child to look around the chess board and consider the effect of the other person’s move before replying. 

“Even at a very young age, the idea that you need to look at the other person’s move is incorporated into your thinking. This is why it is necessary to get children playing a full game as soon as possible, rather than just doing chess-themed exercises or activities. 

“At the beginning, there is no emphasis on the quality of the move, so long as it is legal. All you are trying to do is stop children from reacting without thinking. This is very different than video games which are primarily about the speed with which one reacts. Chess is reflective, not reactive.”

Once the goal of the game and the basic moves are understood, instruction will progress to learning tactics and developing strategies. Again, Sunil emphasized that this can be accomplished even by very young children. “The NSCF’s experience has shown that all children are able to think ahead to some degree.”

In addition to introducing chess in the classroom, Sunil pointed out that chess is also a tool to engage parents. To that end, many NSCF trainings are open to parents, grandparents and other youth mentors. Chess can be played at school and at home and parents can quickly learn how to successfully teach their children. “There are a number of unique techniques we employ. One key to teaching chess successfully is to not introduce everything at one and to present new ideas only once initial concepts are mastered. And remember, chess is a game. It’s supposed to be fun!”

The teacher training consists of two workshops. Demystifying Chess Workshop #1: Teaching the Basics and Chess for Early Learners.

Even if you’ve never played chess, the “Teaching the Basics” workshop will get you playing and prepare you to teach a chess program. Usually a one-day training, this workshop is being offered over 2 evenings: Tuesday, February 21 and Thursday, February 23.

Then, the “Chess for Early Learners” workshop focuses on the unique methods used to present chess to very young learners in a classroom setting. This workshop runs on Saturday, March 4, from 9:15 am to 4:45 (a light lunch is included).

These workshops, normally $250 per participant, are free for Sunrise teachers and parents. You can register online by clicking the links or visiting our Events listing.

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