Teaching Your Child Chess (Don’t Wait!!)

child sitting at a table with empty chessboard

I started to teach my oldest son to play chess when he was four years old. he is now 7.5, and plays well and independently. He’s actually almost obsessive about it.

My kid is a very active young man. He isn’t what I would have thought of as a typical chess player. He loves soccer, jumping on the trampoline, struggles to sit still, and has a lot to say.

I didn’t think he would like chess.

But I thought, why not see if he is ready to learn? And rather than listen to the peanut gallery who said I should start with Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or Checkers…..I decided not to underestimate my son.

And if you knew me, you’d know that chess wasn’t the first thing I’d ever done that might have seen strange or over the head of a young child. I have always tried to go over my kids’ heads a bit, let them stretch and grow.

person playing chess

I read them adult books (editing out bad language, violence and naughty bits), I let them wield adult tools, I don’t stop them from climbing things, or taking risks. We tear apart broken appliances to see what their insides look like.

When I decided that chess was the next big thing, I went down to Goodwill and bought a pretty sweet chessboard for $2. And if the plan totally failed, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Just $2.

And here’s how it went.

Starting small/baby steps

While I was teaching my son a game mostly played by teens and grown up, I paid close attention to his interest and attention span. In the beginning, I focused on getting him used to the idea of the game, learning about the pieces (the names), and setting up the board.

I made up silly games and rhymes about the names of the pieces to help him remember them. I challenged him to races to put the pieces on the board in the right places.

We didn’t even TRY to start a game of chess until he understood what the pieces were and where they would go.

Introducing the moves without drama or stress

Some people start teaching kids with a limited number of pieces on the board, while others just go ahead with all the pieces. I’d never taught anyone how to play before, and didn’t even think to just play with a few pieces at a time.

I taught my son with a full board. When we started moving the pieces, we discussed where the pieces could and would go, without thinking too much about strategy. We didn’t think about winning or losing, or even taking pieces. We just focused on taking turns, and waiting until the other person had finished before moving any pieces.

Children at the age of 5 have a developing ability to control themselves….but still struggle. If you can get to the point where your child can wait patiently for you to make your move, you will be ready to move on to actually playing the game.

I didn’t do a lot of instructing or lecturing about the pieces. Instead, I just played with him. I showed him how my pieces moved, and correctly him pleasantly when his pieces didn’t go where they were supposed to. I didn’t freak out or come down on him harshly for making mistakes.

I spoke to him frequently about how losing pieces was a part of the game, and how losing games of chess were the stepping stones to winning games at chess.

About how taking risks could lead to winning or learning.

chessboard with blurry person sitting behind the pieces

Playing the game

After my son could move the pieces mostly around the board, we started to play. We played over and over again. I made a choice early on once he was able to manage his own game that I would not play down to his level, and that I would play to beat him, to encourage him to play up to my level.

In a world where children are praised for every single success, however small and large, I felt like it was important for my son to learn how to win, and how to lose.

So once I felt like he was ready to play on his own, I started to beat my son at chess.

Every time.

But here’s the thing. Throughout the game, my son and I talked about moves. I talked about how a piece could go this way or that, and whether it was a good idea or not. And then he began to do it. I laughed when I lost pieces foolishly. And then he began to laugh at himself as well.

I praised him for good moves. And he began to do the same.

We focused on the journey to the end of the game rather than the ultimate outcome (the win or loss) which is really just an afterthought in the game of chess.

It took some work, but now when the game is over, my son barely spends a second on the win/loss and demands immediately to set the board up so that we can play again.

Getting my five year old son to the point where he could play took a while

I’m not going to lie. It was a labor of love to teach my 5 year old to play chess. It took the greater part of a summer to teach him about all the pieces and get him started playing elementary games.

I was very careful about making chess out to be fun, rather than a chore. I often played with him at the dinner table while I was cooking, and more often than not he would take my pieces when I was distracted by something boiling or burning.

It was a way for us to do something together that we both enjoyed. I think it made a difference for him that he was never forced to play, and that I always played with him and engaged with him, touching him on the shoulder or face when he entertained me, looking at him in the eye and showing him my appreciation when I could tell he was trying hard.

I never made chess playing mandatory, never set a minimum time for play, and always let him go free any time he wanted to stop.

taking a chess piece during a chess game

Moving forward, building critical and strategic thinking skills

Now that my son knows the mechanics of the game, the more challenging parts of chess await. At this point, I have to pay pretty close attention to avoid losing to my child, because he is starting to use his eyes a lot more.

No longer is he obsessed with the quick win, snatching one pawn away from me. He is starting to look two-three moves ahead, working on making plans.

But he isn’t looking far enough ahead, and frequently gets distracted by his goals, leaving his other important pieces vulnerable to my attacks.

Rather than focusing on beating him quickly, I move my pieces around the board and give him opportunities to notice that his pieces are in danger, or to see how I have set up four or five pieces to trap his king.

Advocating for chess

One thing that I did that helped build my son’s enthusiasm for chess is that I talked to his teacher about incorporating it at school. The teacher was skeptical about whether her students would want to play chess (or could play chess), but we quickly found that there were several students in the class (six or seven) who already knew how to play, and many more who were interested in learning.

My son become somewhat of a celebrity because he knew the most about chess, and could beat all the other kids. But instead of beating them to gloat, he took on the role of chess teacher to his friends, and was supportive of them rather than aggressive.

If you want to push your child in chess (in a healthy way, not a Tiger-mom way), consider checking in with your child’s teacher at school about playing chess in the classroom, or the possibility of starting an after school chess club. It would be fun to have older kids come from the middle or high school to play chess with the younger kids to get volunteer hours.

If I were to teach my son to play chess again…

I would do what I am doing with my youngest child (my daughter, who is three). I will still take time to learn all the pieces and focus on the skills of playing any board game (taking turns, leaving the pieces on the board).

(And no, I don’t expect my three year old to be a chess prodigy or play games with me. She loves to play with the chess board and the pieces because she sees her brother doing it, and I use her interest in the game to work on taking turns or waiting until I am done with my move).

But instead of going with a full board, I think I would start with only a few pieces at a time. Perhaps line up the king, one bishop, one rook and a few pawns. Play with fewer pieces on the board to get in the way, to have to know how to move, and to watch out for.

I think it might be easier for her to grasp how the various pieces move if she didn’t have to worry about all the pieces all at once, or worry about what I would do with all of MY pieces all around the board.

How old should a child be before starting to play chess?

I honestly don’t think there is a minimum age. My children are so different. My second child is almost six and has less interest in chess than his brother. Instead of playing full games right now, sometimes we just set up the board and play for 10 minutes or so until he loses interest, and then I send him off to play after we clean up.

If your child is really young, don’t think about it like teaching chess. Model chess instead. Let your child see you playing chess with another child or an adult. Kids want to do the things that we do, especially if we do them a lot.

Your child will want to play chess if she sees you playing chess. You’ll probably have a hard time keeping her out of your game.

And when she wants to “play” as a little one, then you play at her leve. Move the pieces, put them on the board, name them. Have fun with it. Over time, as she grows, if you keep doing what you are doing, she’ll eventually be ready to play.

Just remember that every child develops differently.

I feel really good knowing I’ve given my child something he’ll be able to love the rest of his life

Along with Transformers, soccer, climbing trees, playing with his friends, and watching cartoons, my son loves to play chess.

I’m glad on a daily basis that I did not listen to my well-meaning friends and family members who said he was too young to learn to play chess. Honestly, it is too bad that so many adults drastically underestimate what kids are capable of.

Chess is a game that my son can play happily for the rest of his life.

old folks playing chess outside at the park

It’ll help him develop his mind and teach him how to think for himself. I think it is helping him gain confidence in himself and in his abilities at a time when confidence is desperately needed.

And yes, I’m patting myself on the back right now. I feel like I’m entitled to it.

Let me know your thoughts

Have you ever taught your kids a skill at a young age that just left other people scratching their heads, wondering what the heck you are doing? Let me know down in the comments section. It would be great to know that I am not the only crazy one.

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