The NCSF helps students learn chess.
Leadership Insights

Teaching Chess in Schools: The National Scholastic Chess Foundation

By Erin Flynn Jay September 24, 2014
The NCSF helps students learn chess.

Sunil Weeramantry has spent more than 40 years teaching and developing award-winning chess programs. As the founder and executive director of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation (NSCF), Weeramantry served as the first chairman of the US Chess Federation’s Committee on Chess in Education and has produced workshops across the country, including on Capitol Hill.

The National Scholastic Chess Foundation enriches academics and after-school programs with chess instruction

Weeramantry first developed a comprehensive chess program in 1979 at Manhattan’s Hunter College Campus Schools, a laboratory school for talented and gifted students where chess is a required subject in kindergarten through fifth grade. Today, the NSCF operates in more than 70 schools in 30 different communities in New York and Connecticut. The organization also partners with select programs across the nation.

How are most educators using chess in schools and after-school programs?

“Most programs focus on performance,” said Weeramantry. “However, there are many students who have a good understanding of chess but are not able to demonstrate their knowledge in a competitive setting.”

“It would be better to emphasize knowledge rather than performance,” he continued.

Chess teaches young students geometry concepts, reasoning, pattern recognition

NSCF teachers have made connections between chess and many other subject areas.

“As a game that has existed for over a thousand years, the story of chess has enriched the teaching of social studies and ancient civilizations. As an activity that demands accuracy and precision of calculation, chess requires the understanding of basic mathematics,” said Weeramantry.

Chess is not currently part of the early childhood learning curriculum for many schools. Clearly, there are challenges to more widespread implementation. The main reason, according to Weeramantry, appears to be a mistaken belief that children will not be able to handle the reasoning that is required in chess.

“As a game that is played on 64 squares with horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines of movement, chess introduces geometric concepts,” he said. “And as a discipline that relies on conditional thinking for success, chess is the embodiment of logic and reasoning.”

Using chess as a teaching tool keeps learning expectations high

NSCF’s experience has shown, however, that all children are able to think ahead to some degree. There is no need to lower expectations or resort to gimmicks to retain students’ attention.Weeramantry said the principal challenge is the lack of qualified instructors. Enlarging the pool is of paramount importance.

What is his goal for advocating the importance of chess in early childhood education? “Chess is an activity that requires reflection, not reaction. As such, it stands in stark contrast to most activities that children indulge in today,” he said.”

“If we were able to instill the benefits of reasoning in children from an early age, it would advance the educational process.”

Tips for teachers who want to include chess in the classroom

Weeramantry offered some tips for teachers seeking to implement chess into their programs:

1. Do not be intimidated. “Different piece movements make the game more complex yet much more interesting than checkers, for instance. Children will respond to the challenge,” he said.

2. In order to align with basic directional movement of the game, introduce chess pieces to children in the following order:

  • Rook
  • Bishop
  • Queen
  • King
  • Knight
  • Pawn

This order makes it easier to compare and contrast the power of the pieces.

3. Explain check and checkmate.

4. Set up a chess center featuring a “puzzle of the day.” A good resource for puzzles is the book “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.”

Erin Flynn Jay is a writer, editor and publicist, working mainly with authors and small businesses since 2001. Erin’s interests also reach into the educational space, where her affinity for innovation spurs articles about early childhood education and learning strategies. She is based in Philadelphia.

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