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Nursery Chess Success 2007-08-14

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Humanities, Scotland.
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In mediaeval times, chess was used to teach war strategy to the English educational élite and has latterly become a highbrow allegory for the eternal struggles between life and death in literature.

Its origins date back so far that they are shrouded in the mists of time, but experts believe it began in India around 600AD when elephants were used instead of bishops, and four armies battled for supremacy.

In other words, it wasn’t a game for children.

Undeterred, East Dunbartonshire Council introduced the game for nursery children as young as three last year. Staff at ‘Holy Family Nursery‘, in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, had to learn the rules themselves before using it to improve the children’s concentration, friendships, problem-solving and spatial awareness.

Chess has since become a hook for the curriculum, with pupils making model castles and painting pictures of themselves wearing crowns, as well as learning the rules.

The scheme was so successful that it has become a permanent feature. Other nursery headteachers in the local area are now exploring use of the game.

In Aberdeen, a chess development project was launched in primary schools in the Northfield area in 2001 and expanded to schools around the city. The game was found to help improve attainment, and the project was extended to several schools, with pupils going on to compete in international chess tournaments.

The success of the Aberdeen project has been one of the reasons for hosting an international conference this month to explore and share ideas emerging from both schools and academic research on the use of chess in education.

Aberdeen University’s school of education, Aberdeen City Council and Scottish Junior Chess Association — in alliance with a number of national chess federations — have together organised the ‘Chess in the Schools and Communities International Conference‘, which will take place at the university from 2007-08-30 /2007-09-01.

  • Speakers include international chess grandmasters, academics and the organisers of chess education projects from around the world.

Mr.Dod Forrest, the co-ordinator of the conference, is an honorary research fellow of the university’s Rowan group, which studies young people and education. His current role has developed thanks to the success of the Northfield trials, which prompted Scottish Executive research and support. He says:

Dod Forrest‘The study looked at social processes and the context of learning.

‘We found that the chess-playing group of children showed improvements in reading comprehension and behaviour compared with the group which did not play chess, based on the teacher’s assessment of some of the more difficult children in class.

‘The big question is why is this happening.

‘We can look at the reading skills, before interaction with chess and afterwards, and something improves but we don’t really know why.

‘There may be a relationship between the chess and extra study at home but that is why we have organised the conference to shed a little light on the benefits.’

Due to speak at the conference are mother and daughter team Donna and Amy Officer, from Perth. Primary teacher Donna has been running a chess club at Hillside Primary School in Dundee for two years, in an area where families are more likely to gather around the television than the chess board. She says:

‘When we first mentioned starting up a chess club, the children laughed because they didn’t think it was cool or interesting but once they tried it they realised it was great fun.’By the time we gave them worksheets, they enjoyed the chess so much they were enthusiastic about them.’

Worksheets mostly focus on mathematical problems. For example, children must try to find a way of moving a knight over every square on the board, or work out sums where every piece has a different value. Literary skills are developed by asking the children to write about the game. Donna says:

‘There is a huge relationship between maths ability and children who play chess. Many of the things they do in chess, they also do in maths such as strategy, planning, tactics and logic.’It is also bringing families together. Parents are telling us that they had the chessboard out while their children taught them how to play.

‘Children are going home with a newly learned skill they are enthusiastic about and getting parents on board.’

Donna is also international director for juniors at Chess Scotland and Amy is a junior champion of the game. Amy won the under-16 section of the British Women’s Chess Association Championships in York in February.

Both are to make presentations at the conference demonstrating how the game can be used to deliver the curriculum.

Chess Scotland will also be arguing at the conference for the ‘visiting chess coach’ concept advocated by the Aberdeen researchers.

Craig Pritchett former Scottish Men’s champion, in 2005, and schools development director of Chess Scotland, believes increasing numbers of schools and local authorities are prepared to finance projects if coaches can be found. Pritchett says:

Craig Pritchett‘Chess teaching currently relies overwhelmingly on volunteers, who themselves operate for relatively small periods in single-school clubs.

‘There are still few coaches prepared to commit themselves to larger, multi-school, area-wide projects.

‘In part, this is because of economic insecurities, career path inadequacies and or lack of professional recognition.’

Against this background, Chess Scotland commissioned consultants to review the support it offers to schools, local education authorities, volunteers and ‘coaches’, and its business planning for junior chess.

Pritchett is hoping Chess Scotland can raise funds to pay a chess development officer who would co-ordinate school clubs, with the wider chess scene bringing volunteer chess coaches into interested schools. He says:

‘Working at various levels, hopefully things would begin to grow.

‘Goethe once described chess as the gymnasium of the mind; it develops analytical and strategic skills as well as putting plans into action which would help make children successful in any walk of life.’

Chess club may once have been the lunchtime refuge of the bookish class prodigy from the hurly-burly of the playground, but the future of the once élitist game looks likely to spread further, both socio-economically and to all ages from nursery upwards.

Chess players can learn to analyse complex situations, to think ahead, make plans and calculate sequences, and children are widely believed to learn self-discipline and to concentrate, as well as other skills simply by playing the game.

  • Scotland has retained the crown in the British Chess Championship, which concluded in Great Yarmouth at the weekend, as Glasgow-based Jacob Aagaard replaced former three-times champion Jonathan Rowson, also a Scot.

With the forthcoming conference and a growing number of projects in schools, it may be a gambit that pays off for Scottish children.

For more information about the Chess in the Schools and Communities International Conference, visit www.scottishjuniorchess.co.uk/cisccon/cisccon.htm

  • CLIPPED FROM: ‘Schools make a winning move‘, Fiona Macleod, The Scotsman, 2007-08-14
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