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Chess Club Teaches Thinking Skills, Sportsmanship

"Chess is not just another board game with interesting pieces," says Laurie Erdman. "There are many positive aspects to learning this game. Chess means you have to really use your brain. Strategy is involved, spatial relationships, planning ahead, ethics, and reason. It is a brain developer."

During Erdman's first year as parent partnership coordinator at Northwoods Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, cold weather led to several indoor recess periods for the students. She discovered that many of the children were playing chess to pass the time and enjoying it, so she asked her principal for permission to organize an after-school chess club. Next she brought in the best teacher she knew to be its "coach," her husband, Jim, who is a high school teacher and a life-long chess player.

"I know less then he does about the game, and all the new players are happy to play with me because they may be able to beat me," admits Erdman. "Jim is wonderful with these fourth and fifth graders, who are quite different from the junior and senior high school students he normally works with."

Erdman recalls last year when her husband used an instructional chess board that he hangs on the wall to illustrate a famous move by Bobby Fischer. He put the pieces in the proper configuration and showed the kids how they could "play against" Fischer because of recorded games.

"Later, as the session was dismissing and students were being picked up by parents, one of the fourth grade boys was overheard by her husband," Erdman stated. "He was standing at the instructional board, and he was moving the pieces as Jim had showed them. Jim heard him say, 'I just played one of the bestus players in the world.' It is moments like that when you know you have had an impact, and they have learned something."

The chess club included students from third through fifth grade at the start, but the group proved too large and many of the children were not truly ready to be still and focus for the required time. Now the club contains fourth and fifth grade members, with third graders invited to sit in on sessions at the end of the semester. The Erdmans have developed a popular chess camp that they teach through the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire Summer Institute during summer months. They have also created a chess clinic that is a one-evening event for interested parents and students from the entire school district.

"We also have what we call a Chess Challenge, which we open up to the entire school district," Erdman explained. "Chess players in grades four and five from other schools in the district come for an evening of play. It is not a true tournament with levels; thus, we call it a challenge. It is more for kids to get together and play and be challenged by children they do not know. We have offered this not only to our public schools, but also to private schools. We have a great turnout and everyone loves it."

From her experience, Erdman suggests that a love of the game of chess begins at the top. It is essential to have a coach who relates well to children and knows what to teach about the game and how to do it. The position requires an individual with a teaching background or a "natural" educator.

Parents also can be involved by providing treats for weekly meetings. Food is an important "perk" for the Northwoods club. Parents are encouraged to not only come with their kids but to play chess with the club members. Participants sign a behavior compact and set up rules for the club. This process relates well to the teaching of proper behavior and ethics, which are part of the game. Winter is the best time for the group to meet since students often get involved in spring sports and find it more difficult to attend.

"Chess is a game that can be played all through life, and it is not a matter of people having to play people their own age," adds Erdman. "It is more about ability. You never get tired of chess. Each game is different. This ancient game remains one that is played around the world by all ages in part because it is competitive and a thinking person's game."

Photos courtesy of Laurie Erdman.


Read more about chess as a teaching and critical-think tool in these Education World articles.

  • Chess, Anyone? -- Chess As an Essential Teaching Tool
  • Chess Clubs Give Kids New Skills -- and New Hope

    The ideas for articles in this Partners for Student Success series come from annual collections of Promising Partnership Practices by the National Network of Partnership Schools. Established by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS is dedicated to bringing together schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing and maintaining comprehensive programs of school-family-community partnerships.

    "Based on more than a decade of research and the work of many educators, parents, students, and others, we know that it is possible for all elementary, middle, and high schools to develop and maintain strong programs of partnership," NNPS director Joyce L. Epstein told Education World.